If a picture speaks a thousand words then it’s entirely possible that the press photograph for this record says more than I can about it than I can in five hundred or so.
Sam Beam and Ben Bridwell sit at a table, each with a beer, laughing. It’s not even slightly difficult to believe that Sing Into My Mouth was conceived in such an environment; two guys who evidently enjoy each other’s company deciding to make a covers album for the hell of it.
Of course, musically, it’s not really a mismatch either. Beam, as Iron & Wine, has made more than his fair share of delicate indie folk over the past decade or so and Bridwell, who fronts Band Of Horses, has routinely laid down the kind of country and folk-tinged rock and roll that Beam has made a staple of his full-band live shows. Their influences have always been patently American and their voices are deeply distinctive; Beam’s an earthy whisper, Bridwell’s a lilting yelp.
The pair have known each other for fifteen years and as much as you assume there has to be plenty of overlap in their musical tastes, they’re nothing if not varied; Sade, Spiritualized and, most successfully, Talking Heads are amongst the artists tackled here. The cover of “This Must Be the Place” from which the album takes its name opens proceedings in hugely promising fashion; it’s a genuine reinterpretation. Recording that track in the warm, folk-flecked style that they’ve both made their calling card puts an entirely new spin on David Byrne’s ingenious lyrics; it ceases to be a tale of isolation and detachment and becomes a considerably more straightforward - but no less sincere - love song. Full marks for both the idea and the execution, even if you have to strongly suspect it’ll polarise opinion, particularly among hardcore 'Heads fans.
If “Place” is the standout, there’s a couple of other moments that run it close; the cover of Sade’s “Bulletproof Soul” ostensibly retains the laidback feel of the original, but the flashes of strings and wistful snatches of slide guitar lend it a brooding edge that bubbles just beneath the surface throughout. “You Know Me More Than I Know”, meanwhile - a John Cale solo effort - has Bridwell pushing himself out of his vocal comfort zone and Beam ably backing him up over bare-bones instrumentation.
The key problem with Sing Into My Mouth, though, is that this willingness to go against the grain of the cosy sonic identity that the pair have carved out for themselves is all too rare, and inevitably, more often than not the covers sound uninspiring in that form at best and plain wrong at worst. “Any Day Woman” and “Magnolia” - Bonnie Raitt and JJ Cale, respectively - are pedestrian retreads, and they seem to be trying to force an energy and spark that simply isn’t there on their take on Ronnie Lane’s “Done This One Before”. “No Way Out of Here” and “God Knows (You Gotta Give to Get)” signal a mid-album slump as they grind proceedings almost to a halt with their failure to mine their blueprints for anything new, and “The Straight and the Narrow” - whilst not a million miles from the sound of the original - feels almost reductive when Jason Pierce’s crisp, emotive vocals are replaced with Bridwell on Band of Horses autopilot.
It almost feels redundant to be so analytical about an album that was so clearly made for fun, but there’s glimmers of brilliance that frustrate in their scarcity. Still, it’s hard to shake the feeling that those moments are bound to end up informing whatever the two do next once they’re back in their day jobs; in that respect, then, Sing Into My Mouth was a worthwhile exercise.