Tuesday, Jul 22, 2014 11:43 pm est

Iron & Wine’s album feels too polished, not risky

Posted on April 17, 2013 | by Peter Slattery

Courtesy of Nonesuch

“Ghost on Ghost,” the fifth studio album from singer-songwriter Iron & Wine, aka Sam Beam, dips its musical toes into a variety of genre pools. Influenced by jazz, pop and R&B, the new album is perhaps Beam’s most refined effort yet.

There are moments in “Ghost on Ghost,” like the first few seconds of “Caught in the Briars” or the saxophone solo in “Low Light Buddy of Mine,” that reflect the anxious energy of Beam’s previous records, but the album stays mostly consistent in its colorful but calm sound.

However, colorful and calm don’t quite combine so much as coexist in “Ghost on Ghost.” The album alternates between soft, folksy tracks like “Joy,” “Sundown (Back in the Briars)” and “Winter Prayers,” and funkier, vintage-sounding cuts like “The Desert Babbler” and “Singers and the Endless Sun.” Beam’s voice often feels happy and haunting at the same time, which creates an interesting effect.

“Ghost on Ghost” feels a little sleepy in general but hits home when Beam is able to augment his typical stripped-down style with the pep of more polished instruments. Album highlights “Caught in the Briars” and “New Mexico’s No Breeze” focus on Beam’s warm vocals but also add strings, horns and understated drums that develop a bright sound perfect for spring.

“Grace For Saints And Ramblers” is perhaps the driving centerpiece of “Ghost on Ghost,” a fluid, soulful cut that strikes a perfect balance between arranged and homespun.

Lyrically, the album is loose and playful, a wistful potpourri of Americana. Beam writes evocatively, rarely creating specific scenes or characters, but instead connects his songs with simple themes like love and faith.

Yet Beam’s folksy, personal style is frequently obscured by the constant echoes of jazz, R&B and easy listening resulting from the accompanying 12-piece band. This eclectic blend sounds immediately pleasant but becomes a little dull — Beam seems content to lull the listener rather than excite. Beam’s lyrics and voice are heartfelt but lack bite, resembling ’70s pop more than earnest 21st century folk.

“Ghost on Ghost” marks an impressive expansion of musical layers and has by and large done away with the rougher folk that grounded Iron & Wine earlier in the decade. The album is painted on an inventive — if not overly polished — palate. It is a warm and mellow jaunt without many twists or turns, balancing new and classic musical elements while perhaps leaning too much on older ways in the process.

A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, April 17 print edition. Peter Slattery is a staff writer. Email him at music@nyunews.com.


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Felipe De La Hoz

Multimedia Editor | Felipe De La Hoz is a Colombian national studying journalism at the College of Arts and Sciences. Having been born in Colombia and raised in the United States, Mexico and Brazil, Felipe is a trilingual travel aficionado and enjoys working in varied and difficult environments. Apart from his photography, Felipe enjoys investigative reporting and interviews, interviewing the likes of Colombian ex-M-19 guerrilla fighters and controversial politician Jimmy McMillan. He has covered everything from governmental conferences to full-blown riots, as well as portraiture shoots and dining photography. Having worked under Brazilian photojournalists for Reuters and AFP, Felipe hopes to one day work on demanding journalistic projects and contribute to the global news cycle.

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News Editor | Ann is a liberal studies sophomore who lived in Florence during her freshman year. She plans on double-majoring in journalism and political science and is always busy. She is constantly making lists and she loves to laugh.


Daniel Yeom

Daniel started at the Features desk of WSN last Spring, writing restaurant reviews whilst indulging on free food and consequently getting fat. Last Fall, he was the dining editor, and he this semester he is senior editor. Daniel is in Gallatin (living the dream) studying Food & Travel Narratives, incorporating aspects of Food Studies, Journalism, and Media, Culture, and Communication. He loves food more than life itself.

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Deputy Multimedia Editor | Hannah Luu is a ridiculously great Deputy Multimedia Editor. She is a sophomore from Northern California. If you think Northern California means San Francisco you might need to closely examine a map. She is passionate about NPR and being half Asian.

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