Iron and Wine’s Sam Beam has long been identified with an affinity for cover songs. It was, after all, his lo-fi acoustic version of the Postal Service’s synth-pop anthem “Such Great Heights,” featured in Zach Braff’s soundtrack in search of a movie, Garden State, that brought him to the general public’s attention. So it was probably inevitable that he’d eventually turn out an entire collection of covers, enlisting his friend, Band of Horses’ Ben Bridwell, for an album that draws heavily from the 1970s rock radio that undergirds both bands’ current styles. With cover art depicting two beer bottles touching necks, Sing Into My Mouth embraces the intimate air of famous old friends meeting up at the honky-tonk that gave them their start. But even if it’s not likely to capture the zeitgeist like Garden State did, Sing Into My Mouth is a surprisingly essential document for fans of both bands, a totem to their musical gods as much as it’s solid country-rock album in its own right.
Beam and Bridwell frontload their indie credibility by opening with a cover of the Talking Heads’s “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody).” The song’s hi-tech, pointillist pop would seem, at first blush, pretty far afield from Iron and Wine and Band of Horses’ sepia-toned Americana, but “This Must Be the Place” is a pastoral at heart; the undercurrent of longing for an idealized elsewhere exposes the soulful common ground between Beam and Bridwell’s rural affectations, and the art-damaged cosmopolitanism of one of indie music’s most-cited forbears.
An even more striking “a-ha!” moment in their genealogy of influences is Sade’s “Bulletproof Soul.” While a fellow folk-rocker like Tracy Chapman might be a more obvious reference point for Beam’s androgynous vocal style, there are just as many traces of Sade’s resonant contralto, and Iron and Wine effortlessly evokes her band’s quiet-storm silkiness. A less familiar selection is El Perro Del Mar’s “God Knows (You Gotta Give to Get),” which was lifted from relative obscurity earlier this year in an episode of Girls, a full decade after its original release. Rather than serving up a crowd-pleasing facsimile, however, Beam and Bridwell strip away the Wall of Sound insulation, change to a minor key, add a bassoon, and come up with something closer to the deep-hued dread of Nick Drake’s “Way to Blue.”
Beam and Bridwell’s take on J.J. Cale’s melancholic “Magnolia” doesn’t stray far from the desert-dusted original, but when performed in laser-light-show tandem with Spiritualized’s “The Straight and Narrow,” the song lends an epic emotional sweep to the typically low-stakes format of the cover album. The widescreen sound returns for the closing track, a cover of Village folky Peter La Farge’s “Coyote, My Little Brother” that’s elongated and multitracked well beyond recognition.
Except for “Coyote,” the covers featuring Bridwell on lead are the most straightforward. Renditions of Ronnie Lane’s “Done This One Before,” Unicorn’s “No Way Out of Here,” and Them Two’s “Am I a Good Man?” are rigidly reverent to their source material in style and tone. Indeed, though Beam and Bridwell credit David Gilmour’s space-rock version of “No Way Out of Here,” their performance comes much closer to the twangy, lesser-known original. “Am I a Good Man?” is pretty much identical to a cover of the soul classic Band of Horses had recorded as a B-side back in 2007, and in both cases, it comes across as an unnecessary, Black Keys-like whitewashing. Still, it doesn’t compromise Beam and Bridwell’s modest ambitions. More than simply a joint stopgap for these indie heavyweights, Sing Into My Mouth serves, like the DJ-Kicks and LateNightTales series, as a musical bibliography for curious fans, and a superbly entertaining one at that.