THE VINYL WORD: IRON & WINE 'GHOST ON GHOST'

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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. It’s still very slick and pro-sounding, but not to the point of distraction. It sounds like the work of two highly skilled craftsmen making the kind of album they should make, instead of guys trying to make something relevant and “big.” Beam’s songs this time are more diverse than usual; he delivers the kind of songs an Iron & Wine follower would expect, nocturnal and hushed confessionals (the echoing “Joy,” “Winter Prayers”) and cinematic ballads (“Baby Center Stage”) that sound like they would have fit in well on the last couple albums. Balancing these against gritty and intense songs that seethe with barely controlled drama and emotion (“Grass Widows,” “Lover’s Revolution”) and a couple almost happy-sounding uptempo tracks (like the rambling, very Belle & Sebastian-influenced “Grace for Saints and Ramblers”) shows that Beam is really expanding the kind of songs he is writing and doing it with a large degree of success. Anyone who has been with I&W since the beginning might find it hard to believe they would ever record a song as lightly soulful and sweet as the almost jaunty “The Desert Babbler” or as easy on the ears as “New Mexico’s No Breeze,” which sounds like a dusty indie pop take on Seals & Crofts, or as musically complex as the very hooky “Caught in the Briars.” Bringing the scale back down to something human while injecting some jazz and sunshine into the I&W sound proves to be a very good strategy for Beam, and it makes Ghost on Ghost one of the most satisfying albums the group has done to date. –All Music Guide

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