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February 25, 2005

Iron and Wine, M. Ward prove folk isn't dead; it just needed life support

It's funny to think that only a few years ago, critics were predicting the death of American folk music. And I mean funny in an ironic way, because such ridiculous pronouncements seem to exist for the sole purpose of being disproved. Case in point: While the oft-resurrected corpse of rock 'n' roll lumbers on, its distant cousin folk has returned from the edge of death, fresh-faced as a newborn babe. No, I'm not talking about "freak-folk," the current imaginary sub-genre du jour. Rather, I'm referring to a more traditionally-oriented subset of artists who search for ways to express themselves in a modern world using anachronistic music.

If these first two months are any indication, 2005 may just be the year that such musicians make a legitimate resurgence. This week marks the release of new material from two of the most celebrated songwriters working in the folk tradition—Iron and Wine's Woman King EP and M. Ward's Transistor Radio. These albums showcase two promising artists who continue to expand their respective oeuvres while retaining a distinct sense of style.

Iron and Wine has always had an immediately recognizable sound: gentle finger picking, delicate melodies and Sam Beam's hushed yet sweet as bourbon vocals. However, on Woman King, Beam chooses to tinker with the formula, doing so to miraculous effect. The opener, "Woman King," is driven by rhythmic clacking; Beam spends the song chasing the beat with his vocal, with a slide guitar not far behind. He's almost rapping as his words fall into the rhythm, slowly setting the scene—"Blackbird claw/ Raven wing/ Under the red sun." "Jezebel" is a thing of beauty, with a bluesy riff and harpsichord augmenting the usual guitar and vocal. Woman King is full of these flourishes—pedal steel, sleigh bells, maracas. These sounds seem unsubstantial on paper, but Beam uses them brilliantly, filling out what are already the best songs of his career.

Back when few people had heard of M. Ward, I would describe him as simply "the best guitarist I've seen in my life." While he often displays his incredible finger style skill onstage, he's always been reticent to show it off on record, preferring to let his songwriting do the talking. However, on his fourth proper release, Transistor Radio, we finally get a small glimpse of Ward's guitar heroics, although they are not the album's focus. As the title implies, Ward's goal is to evoke the power of music of yore, something he's never been less than adept at doing. On the riverboat ode "Big Boat," Ward plays the role of saloon pianist, while on "One Life Away," Ward instills a warm, fuzzy production befitting of, well, a transistor radio. The real treat here though, is the rare glimpse that Transistor Radio gives us of Ward sans persona. Tracks like the poppy folk ballad "Here Comes the Sun Again" or the four-track recording of "I'll Be Yr Bird" remind us that behind the baseball cap pulled down low over his eyes and the smoky voice, M. Ward is just another romantic.

Releases like Woman King and Transistor Radio, along with as Bright Eyes' recent I'm Wide Awake It's Morning, prove that relatively young artists continue to find new ways to reinvent an antiquated tradition. Those critics should have known that music never dies; it just needs to be updated from time to time. Folk is dead; long live folk.