#10 – Ghost on Ghost by Iron & Wine

Ghost on GhostLabel:  Nonesuch

Date of Release:  16-Apr-2013

www.ironandwine.com

Yet another solid outing from Beam and Co.

South Carolina’s finest songwriter, Samuel Beam, returned in 2013 with a new album entitled Ghost on Ghost.  Beam’s fifth album released under the Iron & Wine moniker is a departure of sorts from his recent releases.  Always based on a template of acoustic guitars and hushed vocals, 2011’s Kiss Each Other Clean and (especially) 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog seemed intent to cram the sonic landscape with a witch’s brew of sounds borrowed from funk, soul, and dub reggae.  Ghost on Ghost simplifies the template, not quite all the way back to his early lo-fi days but still sounding relaxed and comfortable in his own skin.

“Caught in the Briars” opens the album, a punchy tune accented with tastefully deployed horns and layers of percussion.  “Low Light Buddy of Mine” is quietly urban and sophisticated, the sort of song you might expect to hear while wandering past a late-night jazz club.  Fans of Belle & Sebastian’s breezy pop flair will find much to love about album centerpiece “Grace for Saints and Ramblers”, while “New Mexico’s No Breeze” sounds like a long-forgotten AM radio hit circa 1976.

The slinky rhythms return to prominence on the standout track “Singers and the Endless Song”, while Beam muses about the passage of stories from one generation to the next through song.  The album’s most wistful moments unfold in the quiet acoustic number “Winter Prayers”, a note-perfect soundtrack for watching snowflakes fall to earth in the glow of the streetlights.

Ghost on Ghost is not a perfect record, nor does it push the limits of musical texture quite like Sam Beam’s previous work.  But there will always be a place in my music collection for well-written, artfully arranged songs by a master craftsman.

click to hear “Grace for Saints and Ramblers” by Iron & Wine

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Walking Far From Home

I was walking far from home
Where the names were not burned along the wall
Saw a building high as heaven
But the door was so small, door was so small
I saw rainclouds, little babies
And a bridge that had tumbled to the ground
I saw sinners making music
I’ve dreamt of that sound, dreamt of that sound

– Iron & Wine, Walking Far From Home”, 2011

Now that we’re over 100 posts into this blog, it should be pretty obvious that music is a huge part of my life.  As mentioned very early on, your trusty Craven Hermit is also an admirer of the great outdoors.  In particular, I love to experience nature from ground level, on foot.  My shadow has been cast across virtually every walking trail in my home town, while my iPod has provided an ever-evolving soundtrack.

From time to time, I get the itch to reacquaint myself with nature by doing some proper wilderness hikes.  Each summer I cram my tent, some bedding, some cooking implements, a duffel bag of clothes, a couple of good books and a picnic cooler into the car and head for the mountains. The glorious Canadian Rockies are only a four-and-a-half hour drive away, which makes those glaciated peaks and forested valleys an ideal destination for an extended weekend sojourn.

I just got back from four days at Lake Louise.  The campsites in the Lake Louise tent campground, while a little on the pricey side, are still as amenable as ever.  They provide a nice balance of privacy with convenience, shelter with natural light.  You can even take a hot shower after a long day on the trail, which might be one of life’s greatest simple pleasures.

A typical day in the mountains begins with a hot al fresco breakfast, followed by a hike to the verge of exhaustion, a shower and a change of clothes, a delicious barbeque dinner, and some drinks around the campfire.  Plugging in your iPod, settling into a comfortable chair with a mug of rye & coke (okay, okay, I can hear my friends snickering… make that several mugs of rye & coke), and watching some flickering flames burn down into glowing embers is a perfect way to unwind.  Campfires give you some well-earned downtime to take stock of your life – a chance to reflect on the previous year and make plans for the next.  There’s something very hypnotic, very alluring, and very Zen about watching wood slowly combust before your eyes.

I managed to squeeze four hikes of various lengths and complexities into this past four-day weekend.  Over the next few days, check back here for new posts with photos and reflections on what I observed while walking far from home.

Hold your fire
Keep it burning bright
Hold the flame till the dream ignites
A spirit with a vision is a dream with a mission

– Rush, “Mission”, 1987

The Spin Cycle

I love this cartoon:

I feel like Charlie Brown’s kindred spirit at the best of times (premature chrome-dome, no fashion sense, unrequited love for the little red-haired girl).  This cartoon just cements it – tomorrow I go shopping for zig-zag shirts.

Mr. Schulz has posed a question for the ages.  Does listening to depressing music make you sad, or do depressed people simply choose to listen to melancholy music?

Here’s my two cents worth on the matter.  From my perspective (and I swear this isn’t meant to be a cop-out), it’s a bit of both.

I have always had a symbiotic relationship with my record collection.  In many ways, it is my best friend.  I’ve been told that I tend to put a noticeable distance between myself and other people, even my closest friends.  I doubt that anyone knows my favourite colour (cobalt blue), or what I want to do when I retire (putter around a cabin in the mountains, watching wild creatures wander through the yard), or even what I find most attractive about a woman (her voice and what she has to say).  The metaphorical wall I’ve erected around myself has been remarkably effective at limiting the number of emotional relationships I’ve shared with people.

But despite the impenetrable Fortress of Solitude, music is always right there at the centre of my soul.

My music is there when I’m out for a three-hour walk through aspen parkland.  My music is there when I’ve had a particularly good day at work or a good night at hockey.  My music is there as I sit around the campfire, summit a new pass on a hike, or wait in a departure lounge for a plane.

And, yes, music is there when I’m feeling blue.  It waits for me with open arms and a reassuring embrace.  It doesn’t judge.  It doesn’t mock.  It simply understands that not every day is going to be euphoria.  It knows that someone who has to work so hard to suppress his roller-coaster of emotions just to stay on an even keel is going to melt down from time to time.

Today is an odd day.  The calendar says it is springtime, but it’s been snowing since 4 a.m.  The pavement is wet, while big wet flakes continue to accumulate on my back lawn, now 4″ thick.  Maybe it’s the strange weather that is lending everything a sense of disorder.  Something just seems off-kilter, out of balance, incomplete.  I want to be somewhere else, anywhere else.  There’s an emptiness, a void; a yearning and a burning that can’t be extinguished.  Like the wise man once said:

I have climbed the highest mountains
I have run through the fields…
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for

Right after I post this meandering collection of words, I’m going to take the fourteen steps down to my basement, cue up the stereo, and re-establish my usual dent on the sofa.  At times like these, my record collection is my salvation.

I can’t speak for everyone.  But I know that when I’m feeling dislocated and disjointed, music helps to ground me.  I don’t think it’s as simple as saying that depressed people listen to sad music, or the act of listening to sad music will depress someone.  Reality is more complicated than simple cause and effect.  I do think that there is something incredibly powerful about music, something that taps into our humanity.  Something that makes us feel a little less lonely on a snowy Saturday night in April.  Something that defies a proper explanation, but is still very real and profound.  I think people in a certain mood are always going to gravitate toward a certain kind of music, just to remind themselves that someone else out there feels the same way.  The music doesn’t depress them – it offers them a refuge.  An arm around their torso and a head on their shoulder.

A quick check of iTunes will reveal the tracks you listen to the most.  Apparently, the top of the Craven Hermit charts goes something like this:

  • “England” by The National
  • “Undisclosed Desires” by Muse
  • “Lucky” by Radiohead
  • “Adventures in Solitude” by the New Pornographers
  • “How to Fight Loneliness” by Wilco
  • “Mess” by Ben Folds Five
  • “Transatlanticism” by Death Cab for Cutie
  • “What I Have To Offer” by Eels
  • “The Scientist” by Coldplay
  • “Naked As We Came” by Iron & Wine
  • “Both Sides Are Even” by The Boxer Rebellion
  • “Drive” by R.E.M.

So, not exactly AC/DC’s greatest hits then!  But there’s very few things in this world that I would take in trade for my relationship with these tunes.

I wonder if Charlie Brown ever managed to find a copy of Transatlanticism on vinyl.  I bet he’d love it.

#10 – Kiss Each Other Clean by Iron & Wine

Label:  Warner Bros.

Released:  25-Jan-2011

Artist’s Website:  www.ironandwine.com

Hyper-hyphenated laid-back indie-dub-funk-folk-rock from the American South

Some artists are content to rest on their laurels once they taste the first fruits of success.  There must be a huge temptation for someone, having discovered a rich vein of material, to stop in one place and mine the seam until it’s gone.  Fortunately for music fans, Sam Beam has other ideas.

Beam is the mastermind behind the renowned indie-folk-rock-alternative combo that assembles under the name Iron & Wine.  When he first emerged on the music scene, his Iron & Wine project was lauded for hushed, lo-fi, fragile, hushed and twisted folk songs.  Over time, Beam has added (and subtracted) band members, progressively introducing a multitude of new sounds, shapes and rhythms to flesh out the skeletal structure of his songs.

2004’s Our Endless Numbered Days album brought a measured amount of mainstream success, and Iron & Wine songs started appearing in network TV programs and movies.  In 2007, The Shepherd’s Dog sounded much more produced, confident, and playful than the earlier works and appeared on many best-of-the-year lists.  Kiss Each Other Clean has pushed the boat out even further from shore, with some unexpected new textures that maybe we should learn to expect from Sam Beam.

The first song, “Walking Far From Home”, signals this shifting approach to songwriting.  Beam’s resonant voice intones a circular lyric over a lush bed of synthesizers, piano, and percussion.  “Me and Lazarus” dances with a laid-back funk bass groove and sexy saxophone.  Words like “funk bass groove” were likely never associated with Iron & Wine back in the lo-fi SubPop days, but somehow these sharp sonic left turns just seem like a natural evolution today.

One of the album’s highlights is “Tree By The River”, which sounds like a distant cousin of Hearts & Bones era Paul Simon.  While featuring a traditional arrangement (by Iron & Wine standards) of organ and guitars, “Tree By The River” manages to sound wistful, nostalgic, and sepia-toned yet distinctly modern.  The purple patch continues with “Monkeys Uptown”, which wraps another funky bass line and waves of synths around an oblique lyric.

The magic of Kiss Each Other Clean is that producer Brian Deck somehow manages to balance the various synth squiggles and funky chunks with Beam’s engaging voice and autumnal storytelling.  The overall effect is a cohesive set of songs that organically unfurl, drawing in the listener.  In lesser hands, the buzzes and whistles of “Rabbit Will Run” or the skronky sax of “Big Burned Hand” would have sounded too busy and discordant.  Instead, the ten tracks on this album smoothly flow one into the next like the chapters of an oddly engaging novel.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0aV9YmaZZTU

Music Challenge Day 24 – A Song That You Want To Play At Your Funeral

This is like the scene from the film This Is Spinal Tap, where the Tap are gathered around Elvis’ grave at Graceland.  After trying to harmonize on “Heartbreak Hotel” and failing miserably, Nigel Tufnel reflects that this whole debacle “really puts perspective on things”.  To which David St. Hubbins replies “too much f*cking perspective”.

Thinking about what music to play at one’s funeral puts things into WAY too much perspective.  I sincerely hope that I have another 40 to 50 years of record collecting and new music to choose from before the gig goes down.  But if I don’t, it would be a (quiet) riot for someone to just hit Shuffle All Songs on my iPod and see what comes up.  It could lead to something beautiful, but it could also lead to something completely inappropriate.  Maybe they should save Shuffle All for an informal memorial party and stick to a few carefully selected songs during the service.

“Such Great Heights” is a song from a 2003 album called Give Up, by a group called The Postal Service.  It’s a cool song, but around the same time it was completely reinterpreted by Sam Beam (of the band Iron & Wine), which you might remember from the Garden State movie soundtrack.  The Iron & Wine version is very stripped down, acoustic, and gorgeously austere.  The words probably aren’t a perfect match for a bachelor’s funeral, but they are evocative of someone sailing high above the clouds, looking down at those left behind.  I’m reluctant to believe in the simplified sunday school characterizations of heaven & hell, but it is a beautiful idea to dream that the afterlife gives one a chance to float effortlessly above the earth, lazily gazing down at the people and places below.  At any rate, songs are always open to interpretation and their meanings can change depending on the context of the listener, thus “Such Great Heights” would work fine.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XX5Dan0VE7w

The last song on Radiohead’s OK Computer album is called “The Tourist”.  I absolutely adore the languid pace of this song.  It’s as though the band, and the listener, are completely unhurried and have all the time in the world to watch life drift by like so much flotsam on a lazy river.  Thom Yorke is imploring the idiot to “slow down”, which probably draws on his neuroses about air travel and car crashes.  But for me, it could easily be a song about suddenly having an infinite amount of time to see the world, like a disembodied soul that is forever destined to be a tourist.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aAXRKPGKXWs

But on closer reflection, the first song from Bon Iver’s new self-titled album is the way to go.  The overall tone of “Perth” is melancholy but defiant, like someone leaning into a cold north wind in a time of adversity.  The drums are reminiscent of a funeral march, the ascending melody reminds me of the best Brian Wilson songs, and the guitars and horns build to a perfect, spellbinding crescendo.  And the simple chorus – “Still alive for you, love” – seems poignant and understated.  “Perth” seems like a fitting epitaph for someone who’s tried to live a quiet, uncluttered life.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bo6lKQYVUBU