As numblingly beautiful as Sam Beam's music is, an entire album of it can almost be too much. His two previous full-lengths as Iron & Wine, The Creek Drank the Cradle and last year's chilling Our Endless Numbered Days, were overwhelming. Beam's songs are so dark they threaten to blot out the sun, and his monolithic whisper can suffocate listeners as easily as hold them aloft. Woman King, though, is a brief, six-track toe-dip into the swirling depths of Iron & Wine, and its brevity only punctuates its genius. A kind of concept EP, the disc dishes out allegorical sketches of feminine identity and sexuality, shrouded in a near-Victorian awe of women that veers from reverential to eerily possessive. Instead of the usual larynx-and-guitar setup, Beam laces his grassy folk and loping modal blues with percussion, piano and violin -- not to mention the sugared harmonies of his sister, Sarah Beam, who injects alternate notes of irony and empathy into her brother's ink-black sentiments. As concise as it is, Woman King harbors centuries' worth of echoes and mystique within its lush, shivering framework.
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