Too good for the trash, too weak for the real deal
Some EPs function as a toe-dip into the pool, experiments released to gauge an audience’s reaction to a new direction. For those who were previously on hiatus, it’s also a brief, inexpensive way to remind the fans that the old ways are coming back. Finally, other artists will scavenge other projects’ cutting room floors to satiate their fans for the next full release. Samuel Evans, better known by the stage name Iron & Wine, slots into that final category with Weed Garden, as it consists mostly of rough drafts from his sixth record Beast Epic that Evans felt warranted a full studio rendition.
Evans wrote these songs in a similar headspace as Beast Epic, but they were not performed or produced in the same way, as Weed Garden is a more polished, lavish release than the laidback predecessor. It’s not filled with studio effects like Kiss Each Other Clean or horns like Ghost on Ghost, but there’s nothing that could be confused for a song off of the sparse, lo-fi Creek Drank the Cradle. That does not have to be a bad thing, and Weed Garden presents a fair variety of styles among its six tracks.
“What Hurts Worse” has the fullest presentation with prominent drums and forceful strumming and vocals, “Last of Your Rock ‘n’ Roll Heroes” is anchored by a squeaking acoustic loop and gauzy backing vocals and “Milkweed” brings in the violins and bass for a tense, jagged track not unlike “Let Me In” from Robert Ellis. There’s never much to criticize in terms of production or vocal performance from Evans; he can always be counted on to deliver something delicate and pretty, and his hushed wispiness isn’t so washed out to feel like a non-presence on his own record like so many contemporaries.
The best Iron & Wine songs are rooted in intriguing, ambiguous imagery. “Flightless Bird, American Mouth” remains his best lyrically, a detailed portrait of chasing a lost love that might be about the moral decay in American politics. Although he has never equaled those mysterious heights, Beast Epic still featured many compelling character portraits on the pleading “Call It Dreaming” or the bitter judgment on “About a Bruise.”
Weed Garden sadly falls into a rut between an overload of nature imagery like the songs “Talking to Fog” and “Autumn Town Leaves,” and blunt language trying too hard to be poetic on “Milkweed” and “Last of Your Rock ‘n’ Roll Heroes.” There are some worthwhile lyrical ideas here, although the hope-in-the-face-of-despair on “What Hurts Worse” is similar to “Call It Dreaming,” but the notion that “one day is whatever we make/ from pieces on the side of the road” could carry a song on its own. However, it’s easy to figure out that these are rough drafts since they rely on shared iconography of fog, flowers and gardens, and each song feels too scattered and unrefined to hit as hard as they could. The production and presentation warrants a listen, and some of its faults are excusable as an EP, though it will never compete with Evan’s full-lengths.