Release Date: Apr 16, 2013
Record label: Nonesuch
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Rock, Lo-Fi, Alternative Singer/Songwriter, Indie Folk
Forget wine – a decade ago, when we met Sam Beam, his music felt more like a bottomless mug of warm, soothing chamomile. Beam has worked hard to move past that first impression in recent years, spiking his acoustic folk songs with unexpected psychedelic flourishes. His vision seems to get grander with each album: On Ghost on Ghost, Iron and Wine's fifth LP, Beam surrounds his wide-eyed vocals with vast, spiraling galaxies of Beach Boys harmonies, New Orleans funeral horns, shimmering strings, drum fills and more.
The days when Sam Beam ushered in a whole new era of DIY indie lo-fi music with records like the hollow and chilling The Creek Drank the Cradle seem further away than ever after hearing Ghost on Ghost, Iron & Wine’s lush and layered new album. Iron & Wine’s last release, 2011’s Kiss Each Other Clean, offered a tribute to Bob Dylan’s visionary surrealism with “Hard Rain”-type dystopian travelogues like “Walking Far From Home. ” It was an intense, gripping album that reflected the high point of Beam’s interest in off-kilter rhythms and African and Arabic percussion forms that he’d been experimenting with since 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog.
With Kiss Each Other Clean, Sam Beam – the brainchild behind Iron & Wine – crafted one of 2011’s most sublime albums. Incorporating more textures, layers and instruments than his previous three records, it took him further away from the hushed, sparse realm of the singer-songwriter and towards a more tropical, worldly adventure. It’s a journey that the Austin, Texas-based musician has continued with Ghost On Ghost, on which he’s joined by a vast array of musicians – including members of Bob Dylan’s band and The Jazz Messengers – to create an equally vast array of sounds.
After expanding his intimate indie folk sound about as far as it could go on the last Iron & Wine album, Kiss Each Other Clean, Sam Beam (and trusty producer Brian Deck) take a step back on Ghost on Ghost and deliver something less suited for large arenas and more late-night jazz club-sized. The arrangements on that album were stuffed with instruments and seemed built to reach the back row; this time there are still plenty of horns, violins, and female backing vocals in the mix, but they are employed with a much lighter touch. Working with jazz drummer Brian Blade and a standup bass and mixing together elements of country, jazz, indie rock, and soft rock, the album has a much more intimate feel that suits Beam's quietly soulful vocals much more naturally.
Some fans remain in mourning for the scratchy folk of his 2002 debut, but Sam Beam's fondness for richly produced MOR has inspired his last few records and bears particularly luscious fruit here. Vigorously polished, unrepentant in its use of syrupy lounge staples – pianos tinkle unobtrusively, backing singers coo – and suave in its mastery of its chosen style, it still teems with ideas and smuggles in lyrical barbs among the sumptuous melodies . The smooth funk of Low Light Buddy of Mine quivers with an undisclosed menace while on Lovers Revolution, Beam cuts wine bar jazz with gothic country, like an apocalyptic preacher at a cocktail party.
The vehicle of Sam Beam's hushed, honeyed vocals and magnificently preposterous facial hair, Iron and Wine have risen to become one of the great modern American bands as quietly and stealthily as any of their songs. As eerie Americana has given way to widescreen folk-rock, their fifth album finds them backed by Bob Dylan's musicians and drawing softly but deeply on a well of American traditionalism stretching from Simon & Garfunkel to the Beach Boys, with unlikely funk and jazz embellishments along the way. Making music perfect for US radio and long drives through natural scenery, Beam has gradually edged away from trademark songs about death and betrayal.
Iron and WineGhost on Ghost(Nonesuch)Rating: 4 out of 5 starsStream the album The days of Iron and Wine as the humble, bedroom-recorded folk project of bearded Floridian troubadour Sam Beam are long gone. He had a good run — two full-length albums and one EP of gently sublime acoustic ditties — but Iron and Wine is a different animal now, and basically has been since 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog, when Beam gave into the urge to flesh out his warm, scruffy sound with rollicking full-band arrangements. Since then, however, Beam has settled into a lush and opulent groove, having balanced slick ‘70s AM Gold arrangements with lite funk on 2011’s Kiss Each Other Clean.
Iron & Wine’s fifth album is another dependably verdant set of Southern Gothic tunes. Much like his 2011 major-label debut, Kiss Each Other Clean, Ghost on Ghost is teeming with judicious lyricism and jazzy doodles. Fans who prefer the singer-songwriter’s early albums over his newer AM radio jams may still tune out. Sam Beam’s wily flirtations with girl-group chants and country-politan pageantry entices in fits and starts.
Over the course of his decade-long career, Samuel Beam has slowly but confidently shed himself of his bearded, lo-fi Appalachian skin in favor of an altogether different guise: a pop-embracing crooner who makes music for quiet Sunday mornings. Gone are the days of “Communion Cups and Someone's Coat” and the litany of bathroom recordings that defined both The Shepherd's Dog and Around the Well. Of course, he's still bearded, but that's one of the last remaining parallels that can be clearly drawn between Beam and former indie-folk peers like Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes.
Continuing in the same FM radio-friendly vein as 2011’s ‘Kiss Each Other Clean’, former earnest acoustic-type Sam Beam’s fifth album sees him taking further, grander steps in the shiny loafers of a cheesy 1970s crooner with a fondness for symphonic folk and a soul groove. Like tunesome blues-rock man Steve Miller or a particularly laid-back Elton John sidling up to the neo-Californian psych-pop of Jonathan Wilson, Beam’s ‘The Desert Babbler’ and ‘Baby Center Stage’ succeed in being more classy than corny, thanks in the main to sweeping harmonies, plush instrumentation and a knowing take on the grandiose. It’s not all super glossy though – the skronky jazz spin-out in ‘Lovers’ Revolution’ adds a much needed dose of bite.
Ghost On Ghost, Sam Beam's fifth long player as Iron & Wine, has an antique gold picture frame on its cover. Inside it are a young couple whose midsections are glimpsed in embrace, one holding a cigarette. This mix of spontaneous intimacy and distancing grandeur is a perfect entry point for Beam's poignant songs which, similarly, attempt to capture a moment and encase it in gilt edged finery.
The fifth full album by Sam Beam under the Iron And Wine name provides emphatic confirmation (if any was required) of his shift from a purveyor of hushed, fragile, lo-fi folk to an expanded, full-band concern. For the first time, his albums that fall into the latter category now outnumber those in the former, a progression also evidenced by his recent live shows which saw older material re-imagined and reworked (not always with entirely successful results). Ghost On Ghost offers no indications that he’s ready to divert his musical path anytime soon.
“Winter Prayers”, a standout on Iron & Wine’s sixth album, Ghost on Ghost, begins quietly and disarmingly. Following the short, breezy instrumental coda of “Sundown (Back in the Briars)”, with its soft eddies of violin, “Winter Prayers” features only Sam Beam’s voice and guitar, with a sympathetic piano gently reinforcing the song’s delicate melody. What makes the moment so notable is how closely it resembles the Iron & Wine of yore, when Beam was recording albums in his living room and smuggling dark thoughts via comfort-food folk.
Devendra Banhart isn’t the only one who has seemingly suffered a demotion lately. Like Banhart, Sam Beam, who records under the moniker Iron and Wine, recorded and released an album on the Warner Bros. label following a history of working with major indie labels. (In Banhart’s case, his big label debut was 2009’s What Will We Be.
If you've ever searched for Iron and Wine at a record store, chances are that you've found songwriter Sam Beam's work in the folk section. The best moments of Ghost on Ghost, however, find him continuing to embrace the lush pop sound he's been moving towards in recent years. "The Desert Babbler" and "New Mexico's No Breeze" are ornately sunny tunes that embrace a smooth A.M.
Review Summary: Results may vary. It didn’t take long for Samuel Beam’s real identity to be completely obliterated by the all-round pervasiveness of his chosen stage name, did it? Famously: Beam took the name “Iron & Wine” from a dietary supplement (“Beef Iron & Wine”) that he found in a general store while shooting a film, and decided that there was a lot more to it than meets the eye. As the South Carolina native explains it: “I recognized that a lot in my writing I'm trying to show both sides of the coin – the sour and sweet; Iron & Wine seemed to fit with that duality and I thought it would be more interesting to call the project that rather than use Sam Beam.
Each of Sam Beam’s formal albums as Iron and Wine has followed a noticeable trend of upping the density of instrumentation on his brand of traditional folk songs. His 2002 debut, The Creek Drank the Cradle, featured nothing but that: songs, 11 of them, short and sweet and carried by little more than Beam’s acoustic guitar and voice, which itself seldom rose past a whisper. By his third, 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog, he’d begun to reach into significantly thicker arrangements – funk guitars, accordions, and even vocal distortion effects were among the most surprising new elements – but he did it without compromising his greatest asset.
For many people, Sam 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. In reality, the songwriter ditched the solitary mission to blend the softly spoken melancholy of Nick Drake with the mystical undercurrents of vintage American folk-blues tradition that characterised his early output a long time ago. Iron & Wine’s sound has been fleshed out and messed around with ever since 2005’s Woman King EP.
Iron and Wine is the stage name of Sam Beam, and artist who comes equipped with warm, hushed vocals and an imitation-worthy beard. It’s easy for casual listeners to place Iron and Wine in the finely crafted box of Folk-inspired, Indie-rock. However, those listeners would be mostly wrong. The earliest albums from Iron and Wine were modest recordings with wistful instrumentation—essentially Beam on acoustic guitar—and forlorn lyricism, but still contained the hint of musical playfulness that suggested that there was always something more.
"You have your three big things that you can talk about, basically, if you're going to write something that actually means something to you as a human being, which is Love, God and Death," said Sam Beam in an interview with Paste Magazine in 2007. The interview was to promote The Shepherd's Dog, his third album as Iron & Wine, wherein the sparse, intimate sound he had previously established was cast aside in favour of the sweeping arrangements and gleaming production that has characterised his output ever since. Still, it is not difficult to trace a through-line in Beam's evolution as an artist: 2005 EPs Woman King and Calexico collaboration In the Reins signposted a shift toward a more full-bodied sound, while those "three big things" he spoke of have consistently informed his musings over the years, in a manner that has gradually become more and more oblique.
Iron & Wine achieves a rare feat with Ghost on Ghost: an adult contemporary album without cliche or compromise. It's Sam Beam's Graceland, except instead of South Africa, he's moved to North Carolina. The transition has been years in the making. Since the bedroom folk of 2002 debut The Creek Drank the Cradle, Iron & Wine has steadily expanded outward with varying degrees of success, delving into desert Americana (Calexico collaboration In the Reins), Afro-funk (The Shepherd's Dog), and golden AM pop/rock (2011's Kiss Each Other Clean).
Named after an irresponsible doctor’s advice (maybe), an ongoing course of Iron & Wine is still recommended, even twelve years on from the beginning of treatment. What could be a better medicine than Samuel Beam’s rich intonation, inclusive instrumentation, and bitter sweet lyrics? Especially now they have a glossy studio finish on them. During 2007’s ‘The Shepherd’s Dog’, Beam emigrated from the bedroom to the recording studio proper, from the intimate confines of solo home recording to the full-band choreography of ‘proper’ albums.
For all of the pastoral beauty found throughout Sam Beam’s catalog as Iron And Wine, it’s the moments of desolation, violence and disruption that stand out the most. That’s true not only of his prickly folk songs but also of his entire career arc thus far. Ever since 2005’s mold-breaking Woman King EP, he’s remained committed to inadvertently antagonizing his audience by following his muse, finding new ways to blow up his sensitive, bearded troubadour image.
Laura Mvula SING TO THE MOON. The songs on Laura Mvula’s debut album, “Sing to the Moon” (Columbia), hail from some alternate pop universe: a realm of choirs and orchestras, of dense harmonies and of songs that unfurl their own forms rather than follow verse-chorus-verse formulas. Ms. Mvula ….