Sam Beam's impressive mess of wild, pointedly unstyled facial hair suggests an approach to personal grooming inspired equally by Will Oldham and Chewbacca, but in most other respects the songwriter, who records as Iron & Wine, is not a typical alt.folkie. Kiss Each Other Clean sees Beam draw inspiration from funk music, play around with thumb pianos and dissonance, and orchestrate a horn section; in short, he's making open-minded music which consistently avoids being either too earnest or too insular. The results are extremely impressive.
Beam may have embraced funk, but he hasn't mutated into James Brown; he's content to delicately sprinkle hints of that genre over his album, a strutting bassline here, a burbling keyboard there. It's the same story with his other innovative touches; they're deftly incorporated into his existing sound, subtly shifting and expanding it rather than revolutionising his music. This subtlety is a tribute to Beam's compositional skill, which is showcased throughout; tracks like 'Rabbit Will Run' and 'Your Fake Name Is Good Enough For Me' boast complex, intricate arrangements which never seem overcomplicated or stuffy. A cursory listen to either song suggests a melodically gifted folk-pop songwriter with a strong voice; repeated listens slowly draw your attention to different layers and nuances, to the moments when the rhythm section stops during 'Rabbit Will Run' or the beautiful backing vocals on 'Your Fake Name'. Other tracks are subtle in a different way. The opening 'Walking Far From Home' initially seems like an exuberant, unabashedly joyful track, but Beam's effusive voice delivers some surprisingly sinister and surreal lyrics. Lines like 'I saw sickness, blooming fruit trees/I saw blood and a bit of it was mine' rub uncomfortably against the manner of their delivery. This is music with hidden depths.
There isn't a weak moment here and several tracks, like the loose, screwed-up pop song 'Monkeys Uptown' ('and it's looking like you'd better do what they say/those monkeys uptown who told you not to fuck around') come close to matching the excellent 'Rabbit Will Run', the album's high point. The odd song fails to ignite as it should ('Half Moon', for instance, is pretty but a little meandering); but taken as a whole, Kiss Each Other Clean is an exceptionally strong record and a very early contender for indie record of the year.