New albums from Sturgill Simpson and Sam Beam & Jesca Hoop.

A Sailor's Guide to Earth.

A Sailor’s Guide to Earth.

There’s been a lot of noise about Sturgill Simp­son in the world of coun­try and it’s not hard to see why. His third album, A Sailors Guide to Earth is, if any­thing, even more ambi­tious than his break­through album, Meta­mod­ern Sounds in Coun­try Music from 2014.

It should have been a com­plete dis­as­ter. A con­cept album, which is bad enough, in the form of a let­ter to his new­ly-born son, which, obvi­ous­ly, is even worse, whose touch points are Sgt. Pepper’s, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and the Bea­t­les-inspired, late Otis Red­ding. Amaz­ing­ly, he lives up to those lofty ambi­tions whilst some­how still man­ag­ing to deliv­er up what is unde­ni­ably an alt coun­try album.

Otis Redding.

Otis Red­ding.

He might balk, albeit a tad effort­ful­ly, at that dis­tinc­tion, between coun­try and alt coun­try. But usu­al­ly there’s a world of dif­fer­ence between the pow­er­ful­ly plain and straight as a die world of coun­try and the more nuanced, qui­et­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed realm of alt country.

But impres­sive­ly, Simp­son man­ages to strad­dle both worlds, and then some. The horn and string arrange­ments on a num­ber of the tracks here are very specif­i­cal­ly designed to recall the rus­tic, gut­tur­al rhythms that came out of Stax with their string and horns (and if you haven’t already seen the doc on Stax, reviewed ear­li­er here, treat your­self). The results call to mind ear­ly Van Mor­ri­son. But then there’s also a very som­bre cut of Nirvana’s In Bloom re-imag­ined as teenage angst.

This is an impres­sive­ly ambi­tious album that is every bit as sub­stan­tial as every­one has been sug­gest­ing – it gets an 8 from the boys at Pitch­fork here. A seri­ous album from a major artist. You can see the video for In Bloom here.


Sam Beam and Jesca Hoop.

Love Let­ter for Fire.

Pop is so ubiq­ui­tous and the results so invari­ably sac­cha­rine and offen­sive­ly MOR that it’s easy to miss the few grown-ups who work in the genre. Sam Beam has been record­ing as Iron and Wine for the last decade or so, and after begin­ning in roots Amer­i­cana mode he has slow­ly but sure­ly set­tled in the world of pop – his last album was reviewed ear­li­er here.

Sam Beam and Jesca Hoop.

Sam Beam and Jesca Hoop.

He pro­duces the same kind of thought­ful, artic­u­late yet unabashed­ly emo­tion­al pop that you get from Jen­ny Lewis and Christo­pher Owens, and ear­li­er from Squeeze and Every­thing But the Girl (in their ear­li­er incar­na­tion), and, from before again, with Car­ole King and Har­ry Nils­son (see the doc on him, reviewed ear­li­er here).

On this lat­est album Love Let­ter for Fire he teams up with Jesca Hoop, who was men­tored by Tom Waits after she land­ed a job work­ing for him as a nanny.

The bad boys, John Lennon and Harry Nilsson.

The bad boys, John Lennon and Har­ry Nilsson.

Like all he best pop, these songs man­age to be intro­spec­tive yet upbeat with just a hint of melan­choly. Their smooth, boy­girl har­monies wash­ing over you before dis­ap­pear­ing again into the ether. Togeth­er with coun­try, it’s the only oth­er genre to resist black influ­ences and not be ren­dered hope­less­ly redun­dant ever after.

They get a 7.5 fromt the boys from Pitch­fork here, and you can see the offi­cial video for the sin­gle Every Song­bird Says here.

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Iron & Wine’s Sumptuous New Album “Ghost On Ghost”.

Ghost On GhostIt looked as if Iron & Wine was part of that vogue for new roots Amer­i­cana that was all the rage about 4 or 5 years ago. Musi­cians seemed to be turn­ing away from dig­i­tal­ly mas­tered lay­ers of processed synths and return­ing instead to orig­i­nal instru­ments acousti­cal­ly record­ed in lofi.

Gillian Welch and Alli­son Krauss sang on O Broth­er Where Art Thou. And bands like Fleet Fox­es, Bon Iver and Iron & Wine enjoyed unex­pect­ed pop­u­lar acclaim, which I wrote about ear­li­er here.

Inevitably the hoi pol­loi caught on, and the result was alas Mum­ford and Sons.

In many ways though Iron & Wine, aka Sam Beam, has been mov­ing in the oppo­site direc­tion all along. He might have begun in the hushed, paired down, sparse acoustic mode beloved of many a bed­room. But his sound­scape has been expand­ing ever since.

His third album, The Shepherd’s Dog from 2007, which seemed at the time to be quin­tes­sen­tial­ly lofi, was fol­lowed by Kiss Each Oth­er Clean in 2011, and now this, Ghost On Ghost.

With each new album the sound gets big­ger, the arrange­ments more com­plex and his plain­tive vocals are cush­ioned ever more com­fort­ably in a bed of reverb and overdub.

Gram-ParsonIn oth­er words, he’s pur­su­ing the same course chart­ed by Gram Par­sons and The Fly­ing Bur­ri­to Broth­ers in the late 60s and ear­ly 70s. And by merg­ing the rich har­monies of the Beach Boys with the graft and craft of The Band, he gives his angst an unex­pect­ed glean.

Desert Bab­bler”, track 2 on this lat­est album, sounds like it could have been the B side on an unre­leased Beach Boys Christ­mas sin­gle. And track 3, “Joy” could just as eas­i­ly have been its A side. You can see the video for it here.

Whilst the penul­ti­mate track, “Lovers’ Rev­o­lu­tion” feels like some­thing that might have turned up on Astral Weeks if some­body else had been asked to pick up the mike – you can hear it here. Before “Baby Cen­ter Stage” brings the album to a serene close by return­ing us to the realm of Fleet­wood Mac, sun­shine and California.

Pris­tine pop cased in a rich musi­cal heritage.

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