“You won’t have to think twice if it’s love. You will know”. We missed Jason Molina this year. But there was plenty to celebrate. A highlight was Timothy Showalter and former members of Magnolia Electric Co. reinventing two of the more obscure tracks from Molina’s Didn’t It Rain era.
Iron & Wine – Weed Garden
“Some want love and some want gold, I just want to see you in the morning”. Sam Beam returned with six gorgeously gentle songs full of recognisably Iron-&-Wine-y themes, lyrics, and arrangements.
Kevin Morby & Waxahatchee – Farewell Transmission/The Dark Don’t Hide It
“In the sirens and the silences now all the great set up hearts, All at once start to beat”. We missed Jason Molina this year. But there was plenty to celebrate. A highlight was Kevin Morby and Katie Crutchfield reinventing two of the best tracks from Molina’s Magnolia Electric Co. era broadly understood
Kramies – Of All The Places Been & Everything The End
It’s been a long wait. “Ireland” was premiered on the 2015 forêts antiques live EP after all. But it was worth it. Rising and falling. Swelling and subsiding. Kramies brought us on a journey through all the places been to a new home. And more.
Pitchfork tells me that my preferred genre is Contemporary Adult Indie. And Pitchfork should know. So, here are five albums from some of my favourite purveyors of Contemporary Adult Indie that were released this year.
The War On Drugs – A Deeper Understanding
It was tough to follow Lost In The Dream. And A Deeper Understanding was always likely to be received as Lost In The Dream Pt. 2. Was it less thrilling? A little perhaps. Was it slightly mellower? The chances are. Was it a deeper understanding? Undoubtedly.
Grizzly Bear – Painted Ruins
Five years between albums is a long time. And Grizzly Bear returned to a very different world. For that reason if no other, Painted Ruins didn’t have quite the same impact as Yellow House or even Veckatimest. But there were some great tunes and some great titles. ‘Systole’, that point in the heartbeat process when the heart is contracting.
Iron & Wine – Beast Epic
From The Creek That Drank The Cradle through to Ghost On Ghost, Sam Beam’s trajectory seemed perfectly linear. From spare and plaintive songs through to rich, multi-tracked arrangements. But with Beast Epic there was a return to somewhat simpler musical times. The result was a real gem.
Fleet Foxes – Crack-Up
The anticipation is always better than the event. And Crack-Up conformed to that general rule. But this was still a fine album. The figurative Crack-Up was perhaps taken a little too literally on some of the tracks, notably the opener, whose whole was not the sum of its parts. Yet, rejoice nonetheless. For Fleet Foxes are back.
Conor Oberst – Salutations
In more ways than one, Salutations was Ruminations plus. With the welcome addition of Ian and James Felice among others, Conor Oberst transformed 2016’s stripped-down set into a full-on band experience and added some new tunes for good measure. Next year, expect the arrival of the version for orchestra and massed choir.
If you’re in dire need of a genre-busting collaboration, then turn the page. Look elsewhere. Move on. Because Sam Beam and Ben Bridwell are in no mood to reshape musical history. And good for them. This is an album that will keep their fans more than happy for now. It’s a covers album. That’s fine, except it means that at least one of your most cherished indie-folk heroes must be a closet Sade fan. In fairness, though, Beam and Bridwell’s version of the 1980s, late-night, faux-jazz balladeer’s ‘Bullet Proof Soul’ is one of the highlights of the set. Other artists covered include Talking Heads, El Perro del Mar, Ronnie Lane, and Spiritualized. Eclectic indeed. What’s striking, though, is that they’ve all been transformed into a very coherent sound. It’s not the pop symphonies of Sam Beam’s recent outings, or his early folk whisperings. But then neither is it Ben Bridwell’s rocked-out Americana. Instead, think more in terms of Band of Horses Acoustic at the Ryman and you’d be in the right ballpark. The lap steel is a constant presence and there’s a muted accordion in the background at times. It’s a gentle, but at times a mightily rewarding experience. Ben Bridwell’s ‘Straight and Narrow’ is more than worth the entrance fee. And it’s interesting to compare Sam Beam’s cover of JJ Cale’s ‘Magnolia’ with Lucinda Williams’ version from last year. Both are away from their babe in New Orleans, but whereas Lucinda Williams makes you feel like her heart is being wrenched from its very moorings by the absence, Sam Beam makes it sound like his heart is jumping with joy just to have someone down there who likes him. Sam Beam and Ben Bridwell will both be back to their day jobs soon enough, but in the meantime they’ve produced an album that’s simple in both conception and exposition, but one that’s well worth the effort nonetheless.
“Time spent with you feels like charcoal sketches for a painting that you won’t let me see”. So we’re told on ‘Quarters In A Pocket’. It’s a neat summary of Iron & Wine’s Archive Series Volume No. 1. The songs in this set feel like charcoal sketches for paintings that for some reason were never exhibited. Like sketches by any great artist, they can be beautiful in themselves. And there are some little masterpieces here. ‘Judgement’, ‘Beyond The Fence’, ‘Minor Piano Keys’, ‘Halfway To Richmond’. They’re all worthy of proper curation. And even though they’re sketches, none is unfinished. There are no false starts. The tape never stops suddenly. There’s no premature corpsing. Understandably, there’s a lo-fi quality to the exercise. Birds can be heard in the background. But the quality is pretty even across the set, creating a coherence to the collection. While it’s not clear exactly what period it covers, we’re in The Creek Drank The Cradle and Our Endless Numbered Days territory. There are gentle backing vocals and some understated musical accompaniment at times. But for the most part this is Sam Beam at his most whispery and often with just a guitar for company. And, as if there was ever any doubt, the lyrics are far from sketchy. The lovely solipsism on ‘Two Hungry Blackbirds’, “Spoke to a mother whose baby drowned, Gave me advice or a rumor she once heard, Heaven’s a distance not a place”. The casual intimacy on ‘Everyone’s Summer Of ’95’, “Hitching a ride with a crusty girl, Me and the boys stole a tie-dye shirt and a kiss or two”. Sketches they may be, but Iron & Wine’s Archive Series Volume No. 1 is worthy of its own show. Chances are that subsequent volumes will be too.
Kiss Each Other Clean, the previous Iron & Wine release, marked a new departure for Sam Beam. There was still the trademark clever wordplay over the lovely melodies, but the production was big. So big, it was almost exhausting, there was so much going on. And there was a lot of cussing. At times, it seemed like the bigness of the production was getting too much even for Sam himself. Despite, or perhaps because of all this, it was a great album. It was the sound of someone changing, learning, and evolving from a musician into a mature artist. Ghost on Ghost is an altogether different proposition. It’s a much simpler, gentler album. The production is still big, but the songs are not as challenging as the ones on its predecessor and they’re slightly less rewarding because of that. ‘The Desert Babbler’ is full of the oohs and aahs of 70s easy listening. ‘New Mexico’s No Breeze’ is the sound of a trip in a comfortable old Sedan with the windows down to let in the air. And gone is the cussing. In it’s place there’s ‘Joy’, which is heartfelt and confessional, but also simple and sugary sweet. Perhaps too sweet. “Deep inside the heart of this troubled man, there’s an itty-bitty boy tugging hard at your hand, Born bitter as a lemon but you must understand that you’ve been bringing me joy”. All of which is strange because the album begins with ‘Caught in the Briars’, which bobs and weaves in classic Iron & Wine fashion and even ends with a nod towards ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’. There’s also plenty of wonderful word play, ‘Grace For Saints and Ramblers’ being the best example. And then there’s ‘Lovers’ Revolution’, which constantly changes tempo, creating peaks and troughs of anxiety, but which ends on a reassuringly soothing note. Ghost on Ghost lacks the consistent tension that made Kiss Each Other Clean so special. It’s a good album. It’s Iron & Wine after all. But the mature Sam Beam has the capacity to provide slightly more thrills than can be found here.