I'm listening to a covers album called Sing Into My Mouth (Black Cricket/ Brown), with two folksy, gentle-voiced, major dudes laying down tasteful versions of songs originally written by Sade, Spiritualized, Bonnie Raitt, Ronnie Lane, Talking Heads, John Cale, and six others. Released just two weeks ago, the album is credited to "Iron and Wine & Ben Bridwell," though in a return to his earliest days, Iron and Wine is just one guy, Sam Beam. These tracks were recorded at Echo Mountain Studios in Asheville, NC; the press release calls it "a loving homage to 12 songs that have had indelible influence on both of its creators." Pitchfork gave Sing Into My Mouth a 5.2, summing up their review with the line, "They've taken a flight of regional microbrews and made them all taste like PBR," among the greatest unwitting acts of self-parody this side of Fox & Friends.
And yes, these guys have already changed the face of modern indie-rock, and you might feel like you've heard enough of them at this point. Bridwell's soaring, high-pitched guitar music with his Band of Horses is played in almost any sad hospital scene in any movie or TV show – anytime white people are crying, you hear Band of Horses in the background. And the sugar-coated, down-home harmonies of Iron & Wine have similarly graced so many commercials and soundtracks that it can be easy to take it for granted – especially as it's woven its way into other less aesthetically successful music, as an influence.
It's difficult to get across exactly how refreshing, how fundamentally necessary, Iron & Wine's music sounded when I first was handed it on a CD-R by Ben Bridwell at the end of 1999, in Seattle. Ben was in a band at the time called Carissa's Wierd (sic), whose intricate and folk-flavored music I was about to release on my small Sad Robot label. Ben was a tireless promoter of his friends' music, and he had his own smaller label, Brown. Bridwell worked the counter at a burrito place called Bimbo's, which I frequented for their healthy options and the fact that I often got free burritos since my slacker musician friends worked there. Ben and Sam knew each other from school days in South Carolina (Sam was initially pals with Ben's brother Michael), and they had been trading music back and forth for years already, both their own fledgling recording attempts and songs they liked.
Here was such defiantly pretty music, simple and stripped-down yet lushly layered with self-recorded backing vocals and the familiar lull of tape hiss. "Indie" music was in a weird place in 1999, especially indie-rock. Math-rock and post-rock had largely run out of steam. The alt-rock movement of the early 1990s had fully fizzled away; your friend whose band had gotten picked up by an obscure subsidiary of Geffen for an ungodly amount just six years earlier was back to working sound at that one club no one goes to. The best music in 1999 was made by Outkast, Blink-182, Missy Elliott, Britney Spears, and Nas. Hip-hop, R+B and pop-punk were super fun and exciting at the turn of the millennium. Everything else seemed stuck in a mud of its own making. The worst was Moby's Play album, which was repeated relentlessly in every café up and down the West Coast in 1999. It was horrifying.
And then along came Sam! I was all set to release his music when a better offer came along from our mutual friends at Sub Pop. They could give him a modest advance, and he was just starting a family, so he smartly signed with them. Ben's band unfortunately stayed with my little label, and went nowhere. Initially, Iron and Wine's music was lumped in with the alleged "freak folk" and "lo-fi" movements. But as it was never overly indebted to 1960s artists like Caetano Veloso or the Incredible String Band, and was never deliberately recorded poorly, both of those tags were swept away in the wash. It always just sounded like the most awesome music to drive around in a muscle car and space out to while skipping math class and being sad because you don't know how to talk to that girl you have a crush on. It sounded so American, in the best possible way. The music that Sam Beam and Ben Bridwell both made in the early 'Oughts meant a lot to me, not because I was personally friends with them for a spell, but because as we entered the Bush-Cheney years, it became more crucial than ever to be reminded of what was good about America – its music!