Album of the week : Ghost on Ghost - Iron & Wine

Sam Beam, otherwise known by his stage name Iron & Wine, has been making folk music for well over a decade now. His extensive back catalogue contains a plethora of singles and split releases, live albums and extended plays and has featured on the soundtrack to countless films and TV programmes, from quirky indie flicks like The Garden State to angst-filled teen dramas like 90210 or The O.C. Now, eleven years after the release of his début full-length, comes studio album number five Ghost On Ghost

For many people, Beam’s music is still sat on the rickety old rocking chair on the porch of the imaginary remote backwoods cabin where the first two Iron & Wine albums – 2002’s The Creek Drank the Cradle and Our Endless Numbered Days (2004) – seemed to reside

No longer. After those albums, Beam began to show his hand and started experimenting with arrangements and styles pushing him well past the acoustic troubadour trappings. Now with Ghost on Ghost, Beam along with producer Brian Deck and a host of musicians including members from Dylan’s band, The Tin Hat Trio and Antony and Johnsons, Iron and Wine continues this evolution by crafting a lush album of memorable pop—complete with funk and jazz grooves

The opener ‘Caught in the Briars’ skids recklessly through a near-disorientating array of motifs and riffs – some free jazz to kick off with, followed by a few licks of West African-style guitar, then some rustic country-funk related to The Band – in just over three minutes. Likewise, the wistfully beautiful ‘Desert Babbler’ packs enough melodic hooks to sustain several standard-issue songs

Beam has said that he was trying to get away from the “anxious tension” of his earlier work, but he hasn’t fully discarded it from Ghost on Ghost. ‘Low Light Buddy of Mine’ sounds like a late night showdown in a darkened alley between Beam and other guys looking to steal his girl away from him. “I love you/ And you love me/ And there’s new fruit humming/ In the old fruit tree”, he sings. The nervous energy is compounded by the song’s jazz/funk arrangement. Elsewhere, ‘Lover’s Revolution’ initially starts out slow before galloping into a near manic pace. This same trick is also executed on ‘Grace for Saints and Ramblers’ where Beam’s sped up vocal delivery is astounding and one of the album’s most memorable moments

‘Singers and the Endless Song’ continues the jazz aesthetics and features some effective drumming and vocal harmonising. A smooth backing vocal compliments the brass fantastically and it’s a brave direction for a member of indie-folk royalty to take. The following song ‘Sundown (Back in the Briars)’ couldn’t be more different. It’s a step back towards familiar territory for Beam and features quite possible the best use of vocal harmonising across the whole of Ghosts and is almost completely a capella, save for the song’s final 40 seconds in rousing strings and brass swell and roll to the songs conclusion

On the ebullient, ‘Joy’, Beam’s reverb-laden voice just seems to float and linger as he puts aside the orchestration. The song seems to barely exist—as if it’s a nod to Beam’s acoustic past. When Beam explains in his soulful falsetto, “Deep inside the heart of this crazy mess/ I’m only calm when I get lost within your wilderness,” he reveals the heartfelt, poetic daydreaming that’s really at the heart of Iron & Wine

The virtuoso concluding trio of ‘New Mexico’s No Breeze’, ‘Lovers’ Revolution’ and ‘Baby Center Stage’ glides from smooth yet rhythmically robust soft-rock via tempo-hopping – but richly melodic – freak-jazz to a bittersweet anthem. That isn’t a bad thing when the record feels as uplifting as this does. The entire album just evokes feelings of summer, and though somewhat premature, upon listening you can’t help but feel that winter just might finally be behind us!

Buy it here

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April 26, 2013

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