Iron & Wine…sort of rolls off the tongue nicely doesn’t it? Likewise does the name of the man who is Iron & Wine, singer/songwriter Samuel Beam. With a name like that, what else could he have been but a purveyor of gritty folk music and Americana? Say it again….Samuel Beam…Iron & Wine. Cellar door anyone?
Anyhow…the impressively hirsute Beam has a cool name and has chosen his moniker nicely. He’s been around the traps for a while now; Ghost on Ghost is his 5th full length album and wilfully or not, he’s been lumped by music pundits into the genre of “indie folk”. Certainly his earlier works befitted such a categorization, containing a sort of dark brooding tension found elsewhere in the alt-folk/country macrocosm, particularly in the music of the likes of Bonnie Prince Billy or Calexico.
Beam has stated that with Ghost on Ghost he’s attempted to move away from some of the unease and disquiet which clung to his earlier releases and move in a slightly more accessible pop direction.
Now, normally the idea of an artist ditching their roots for a “pop” sound is met with derision and shouts of “selling out” and “I liked it before it was popular!” from long time fans. However, fear not…Beam has made the transition nicely.
He hasn’t adopted base & common pop clichés or synthesizers, instead he’s added the new dimension of a soulful brass section and changed up his melodic and harmonic approach which has produced more of an uplifting feel to the album as a whole. There are still moments of melancholia, but rather than coming across as harrowing or desolate, they’re more wistful and reflective.
Musically, this record is quite surprising. The newfound pop approach works a treat, with Beam sounding as if he’s really enjoying his change in approach across the album. There are still many folk elements to the sound, but the tastefully added brass section and keyboard elements give it the unlikely impression of a modern collaboration between Marvin Gaye and Woody Guthrie! Along with this strangely effective combination of styles, Beam’s song construction is first rate. His infectious choruses are complimented by fine vocal harmonies which give the songs a real sophistication and weight. Lyrically, the record is quite dark but superbly poetic and the lyrics often belie their pleasant environs.
Interestingly, the album has a very wooden and dry overall sound. That is to say, it’s a studio sounding recording with little in the way of effects to embellish it, much like many classic albums from the country rock explosion of the early ’70s. This somewhat “dead” sound actually compliments the songs; the production is such that if you close your eyes, the band appear to be performing right in front of you and the vocals in particular are given a real intimacy.
Despite sounding rather spacious, the content of the record is actually quite complex and layered. There are all kinds of different sounds and instrumentation going on here which are not all apparent until after several listens. To use a tired cliché Ghost on Ghost is definitely a “grower” of an album and it gets more and more rewarding with each listen.
Some of the lighter moments (“New Mexico’s no Breeze” for example) will be a little too twee for a few listeners, but even so the songs exhibit a complexity and imagination that makes them eminently enjoyable.
A quality album from start to finish, like any release it still has its obvious high points. “Joy” possesses probably the most impressive vocal harmonies on the disc. It’s a beautifully smouldering track which is instrumentally quite sparse, but still manages to sound rich and powerful.
“Singers and the Endless Song” really funks things up a bit with the aforementioned brass section coming into their own accompanied by some funky clavinet and a wandering bassline driving the song which finishes with the perfect addition of some tastefully understated slide guitar.
“Lovers Reunion” is definitely the most energetic track on offer. Beginning slowly, it builds in inertia and intensity to become almost frantic towards the finish with Beam singing in full voice. Again making a welcome appearance is the ubiquitous brass section which diverts the song momentarily into a jazz-fusion phrase which adds a whole new dimension to the already impressive song.
While some of the content is a little lightweight and fails to engage the listener on an emotional or spiritual level, most of it is very good indeed and repeated listens mine more and more gems each time around. All in all, a most impressive effort from a singer/songwriter who’s only now beginning to receive the plaudits he deserves.