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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