When Iron and Wine first appeared in 2002, its leader was a man of mystery. His debut single for Sub Pop, and his subsequent debut album, The Creek That Drank The Cradle, offered few clues. Wrapped in a mystery not unlike legendary underground folkie Jandek, where and how this music had come from remained a mystery. The word started to spread; Sam Beam was a guy who wrote folk songs but had no eye on a music career; he simply wrote songs, recorded them on a modest 4-track deck, and then put them away for safekeeping. Eventually, a tape of about twenty or more songs appeared in the offices of Sub Pop records, who instantly fell in love with it, and wanted to release an album of songs from the tape…and the rest is history. Perhaps the story seems a little over-simplified, but that’s basically how it happened.
The success of Beam’s first record soon led fans to wonder…what else was on that demo tape. When would it see release? Would it ever see release? With the advent of the digital age, many of Beam’s home recordings appeared online—often as a result of “friends” sharing music he had shared in confidence. I interviewed Beam at the time; the file-sharing of the early material was an understandable point of contention, but he said he hoped one day that tape would be released. Archive Volume No 1 isn’t the entirety of that demo tape, but it is a collection of music recorded during that era.
The sixteen songs here—a number of which have circulated for years—are all cut from the same basic pattern, just Beam and his guitar, quietly telling his tales in a manner so hushed and reserved, one feels that the songs might break were they performed any heavier. Sometimes, such as on “Slow Black River,” “Two Hungry Blackbirds,” and “Minor Piano Keys,” Beam accentuates his singing with double-tracked vocals, and occasionally, as on “Postcard” and “Quarters In A Pocket,” he adds a banjo into the mix, giving the otherwise monochromatic sound a technicolor flourish that makes said songs stand out.
Thirteen years and thousands of crappy “indie folk” imitators later, it is easy to forget just how utterly unique Iron and Wine was. Outside of Will Oldham, Jason Molina, and the rare Mark Kozelek release, nobody was making music this haunting, stark, and gorgeous, and it was the alien sounds found on Archive Volume No. 1 that brought Beam to the world’s attention, and rightly so.