Iron and Wine, ‘Ghost on Ghost’ – Album Review
The last time we heard from Sam Beam, the mastermind behind ‘00s indie-folk pioneers Iron and Wine, he was making his big pop move. Relatively speaking. He was on a major label and fleshed out his spare, acoustic songs with fuller production and arrangements that recalled ‘70s soft rock spiked with hits of occasional freakout noise. ‘Kiss Each Other Clean’ lived up to its labors, debuting at No. 2.
Now, Beam is back in familiar territory. Relatively speaking. He’s on a smaller label for his fifth album, ‘Ghost on Ghost,’ and strips down his songs to more manageable weights. But like its predecessor, ‘Ghost on Ghost’ has its roots in 1970s AM Gold, that soft-rock oasis where hooks, melodies and peaceful, easy feelings provided shelter from any outside storms. Beam sounds relaxed, confident and content here. If there are any ghosts to be found in these songs, they’re the friendly kind.
In the opening ‘Caught in the Briars,’ which starts with a tripped-out polyrhythmic assault that sounds like it was borrowed from a Devendra Banhart record, Beam applies his soft, warm voice to lines like “all of the naked boys who lay down beside her sing the saddest song” as horns gently poke around the edges. It then fades out just as those horns take a detour that lands them somewhere between Ornette Coleman and Frank Zappa.
It’s a bracing parallel that Beam explores from time to time on ‘Ghost on Ghost.’ Songs like ‘The Desert Babbler,’ ‘Grace for Saints and Ramblers’ and ‘New Mexico’s No Breeze’ sound like lost nuggets of late-‘70s gold, when folk, pop and rock combined with horns, strings and hushed vocals for gleaming radio hits that acted like punk and disco never happened.
It’s not always so easygoing; Beam’s sappier tendencies win the battle once in a while. And the more experimental numbers – the ones where the background decorations take precedent over the songs -- bury Beam’s strongest assets: his way with melodies and inviting voice. But like ‘Kiss Each Other Clean,’ ‘Ghost on Ghost’ expands indie folk’s parameters by reaching back to a golden age for the music. When it doesn’t move too far backward or forward, it’s right on.