Ghost on Ghost – Iron and Wine: Music Review

Bio

Known for stylistic and lyrical complexity, seasoned singer-songwriter and (apparently) filmmaker, Samuel Bean aka Iron and Wine has invoked underground stardom for densely diverse albums, a low personal profile, and injecting some life into a particular genre.

Background

iron-and-wine_001372_mainpicture
Sam Bean

I first heard Sam Bean’s music through the popular television drama, House. The episode that his song, Passing Afternoon, played on was melancholia on a silver platter. Between Bean’s nimble, whispery voice, the dreary melodies dripping from his acoustic guitar, and the troubling nature of this episode, it made for a beautifully disheartening first impression.  I felt as if there was no room for any splinter of joy to experience in his music. Yet something drew me to this despondent blend of indie/folk that Bean had to offer. I never followed his discography closely, but through the course of three later albums, his music began to surface on many acoustic playlists made by my friends, iTunes, and later Spotify. I couldn’t get away from Iron & Wine, so I began to think that he was onto something. Over time, I began to slowly chip away at his discography, but not in sequential order, nor in whole for that matter.

Instrumentation/Songwriting

Because I haven’t navigated every nook and cranny of Bean’s discography, I can’t formulate a strong opinion about his musical evolution. I can confidently say, however; that on later records there are some stylistic leaps over the Grand Canyon. Woman King and Our Endless Numbered Days take on classic, singer-songwriter formulas with cloudy instrumentation and a light tone. More recent albums like Kiss Each Other Clean dive into a murky pool of eccentric folk and new age, yet still remain some of those singer-songwriter roots.

Ghost on Ghost album cover.
Ghost on Ghost album cover.

Even Bean himself said that albums like this were meant to prevent him from being stylistically pigeon holed. I listened to select tracks from that album like Rabbit Will Run admiring such weird, complicated instrumentation and abstract lyricism. The other songs I’ve heard on that album mostly follows suit, but does it carry to this newer release, Ghost on Ghost? Here’s the long answer. I was on my way to Green Bay a couple weekends ago and needed something to shake up the endless amounts of Mat Kearney and Being As An Ocean I was listening to all summer. So I found Ghost on Ghost and let it soak in on highway 29. I was quite taken aback by a sharp musical left turn for Sam Bean, but it left a good impression on me.

So, here’s the short answer. Iron and Wine basically wrote a jazz album.

Ghost on Ghost is decorated with bass heavy, smoky-bar blues. I feel like I’m listening to the moodier side of Glenn Miller, Charles Mingus, or Ronnie Cuber when I listen to this collection of songs. They have bellowing bari saxophone, brooding double bass, and sweet higher register piano pieces that encompass a smooth listen. I will get more into specific tracks later, but I think it’s a surprisingly natural style for Iron and Wine. It’s an easy listen that maintains a low profile. It’s not like any of his earlier albums are any more “thrilling,” but I would say this record is especially mellow. When you hear those moments of tenor and alto saxophone sweetly serenade these singer-songwriter ballads, it’s a very kick back, ethereal listen.

Track Reviews

I don’t want to mislead you, the reader/listener by saying that this is a thoroughbred jazz record, because it’s not. A majority of this album still keeps its singer-songwriter roots, but integrates a lot of bluesy flourishes that are laced throughout these songs. For example, the opening track, Caught In the Briars, begins like a throwback to material I’ve heard off Our Endless Numbered Days, until about half way though when this saxophone section adds in these brief licks. Low Light Buddy of Mine breathes like east coast hip-hop with very looped guitar licks, heavy bass, and an alto saxophone solo at the end. Winter Prayers was on an acoustic playlist made by Spotify last winter. iron_and_wine_2 It’s one of the few songs that retain this much essence of singer-songwriter on this entire record. Lover’s Revolution brings the low tones out of the woodwork with a bari sax that crecendos and builds up to this full swing band. It’s where Sam Bean also feels the most vocally passionate and intense on this record. This is also my favorite song by far.

Lyricism

It’s weird. I honestly don’t know how to describe such lyrical abstractness. While it feels like nonsense, there are a lot of cleverly put together turns of phrase throughout many songs on this record. For the most part (at least from what I’ve heard), Iron and Wine’s discography is lyrically woven together by folklore. I actually think it takes a certain mind to be able to do that and not make it come out like word salad. Kudos Sam. Kudos.

Production

The mood says everything. For most of this record, the low-fi, analog quality is very organic. It feels as if you’re sitting at a smoke filled whole in the in the wall bar downtown listening to a local big band play this album at midnight. I like that this isn’t a sterilized record. For that I believe it pays homage to the genre that Sam Bean borrows so heavily from, which is built on the heart and soul of the instrumentation. There’s character.

Conclusion

This is a surprisingly good album. I didn’t really know what to expect, but as a fan of jazz, blues, and singer-songwriter, Iron and Wine created something that feels natural. This is a well balanced record that takes from all these different directions, amalgamating it into an easy listen that has a good flow, pace, and variation. I don’t claim to now be a die hard Iron and Wine fan, but I’d recommend this record.

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One Wild Life: Soul – Gungor: Music Review

Bio

Bringing variety and songwriting ingenuity to a (undeniably controversial) multi-million dollar piece of the music industry, Michael Gungor and his wife, Lisa, have made themselves a household name in contemporary Christian circles for rootsy, experimental singer-songwriter material that has reflected honesty, doubt, and grappling with the divine.

Background

I can’t honestly remember when I first heard Gungor, but once I transferred to Winona State, met a lot of my friends, and went to church the first few times, I became very familiar and warmed up to him quickly. If you’ve read my review of Bethel Music’s live album, We Will Not Be Shaken (which is actually pretty bomb.com), you know my reservations about “Christian” music and the message of Jesus being subsidized by record labels and diluted from cheap marketing.

Michael and Lisa Gungor. Photo credit: Charleston Paper
Michael and Lisa Gungor. Photo credit: Charleston Paper

Gungor never struck me as an artist playing for packed mega-churches and your local faith based radio stations. It was real. I remember first running through tracks on Ghosts Upon the Earth like Ezekiel and Brother & Moon. Most of the album was admittedly not the most memorable, but I appreciated the artistry. When I traveled back further to Beautiful Things, I saw the catchier side to his songwriting with songs like Please Be My Strength and the title track. Looking back on the evolution of Gungor’s discography, Ghosts Upon the Earth was a base built for this natural musical progression, culminating in his last album, I Am Mountain. Showcasing an amalgamation of electronica and catchy alt rock, this album’s vastness launched some pretty good singles, like the title track, which has this sing along chorus that makes me want to belt it out every time. Their live albums like, Creation Liturgy, are probably my favorites given their fun, folksy demeanor reminiscent of Rend Collective’s Campfire that captures Gungor’s true musical aptitude. The guy studied jazz guitar at North Texas State…. And trust me. After seeing his band open for Switchfoot last November, I can confidently say… shred. That now brings us to the new record that is apparently supposed to be one of three to be released within a short span.

Instrumentation/Songwriting

Just as Ghosts Upon the Earth setup I Am Mountain, so does I Am Mountain setup Soul. This album draws from a lot of the sonic elements that made their last record successful and journeyed deeper into this chasm of electronica.

One Wild Life: Soul album cover. Photo credit: Jesusfreakhideout
One Wild Life: Soul album cover. Photo credit: Jesusfreakhideout

At the same time, I think it’s interesting to see Gungor set sail with a crew of different musical influences that takes you through this album. Albums like Black Swan from British indie rock outfit, Athlete, come to mind when listening to this record-there is this coalescing of heavy synthesizers, keyboards, piano, electronic percussion, and acoustic guitar. While I felt like Black Swan’s attempt at this concoction ended in 45 minutes of atmospheric melodrama, I think Gungor takes this formula and makes it into something genre bending. This album has a flow and consistency that makes it easy on the ears. It’s accessible. I must say though, the complex compositions make this album shine brightest. This collection of songs showcases this structural dynamism that requires a lot of attention to detail. I think that’s what this album is built on. You hear these songs begin with this illustrious production, transition into these cathartic electronic passages, and take time to slow down to this nimble close. In the middle are these melodies, chord progressions, and lines that take you down some unexpected turns, and catch you off guard.

Track Reviews

The album starts with, Introduction, that makes feel like I’m listening to the reverb drenched, ambient awesomeness of Sigur Ros’ Valtari. As I said earlier, this album has its moments of creative flow and it comes through when Introduction transitions into Lion of Rock – a dizzying electronic jungle of synthesizers and heavy bass. This pattern lasts until we reach Light. One of the most sentimental tracks on this entire album, Light takes a turn for the musically stripped down. An acoustic guitar lays the foundation for very dreamy sounding midi instrumentation. Am I is the “darkest” song with some eerie percussion and foreboding strings that build throughout this song. The ending track, Vapor is probably the best way to wrap this album with a bow on top with the way it slowly builds to this musical catharsis.

Lyricism

Because of Gungor’s massive popularity in Christian circles and some of Michael Gungor’s controversial blog posts concerning the artistic fidelity of corporate Christian music, the group’s stance on God is no secret. Throughout their discography, their lyrics have told honest stories of wrestling with the divine, frailties of the human condition, joy, and worship. This album follows suit of those themes with songs like One Wild Life.

Full band. Photo credit: sarahosborn.blogspot
Full band. Photo credit: sarahosborn.blogspot

We Are Stronger is the most politically outspoken song on this record with lines such as, “All the black lives matter, all the soldiers matter, all gay lives matter, all the unborn matter.” Their music video for Light tells the story of their baby daughter born with Down Syndrome – a very sentimental dedication.

Production

This album has a very cavernous tone. It’s vast and hollowed out, so the production quality on this album reflects that aura. With electronica, lots of this album feels kind of sterile, but at the same time there is still a sense of the organic preserved in the acoustic tracks. This is by far the most cleanly produced record I’ve heard so far from this group, but I liked that it wasn’t off putting. For the style this is done in, everything feels mostly balanced. I think there are a few passages that feel overpowered by the vocals or that the guitars can feel a little drowned out, but even those nitpicking details make sense in context with song build up.

Conclusion

Gungor have crafted something original and heartfelt. This is an enjoyable album that feels good even in the background and has a lot of replay value. I think fans are going to very openly welcome this record with open ears and hearts. I look forward to the other two releases in the One Wild Life trilogy!

6 summer anthems for any playlist.

With summer coming to a close soon, I thought this would be a good chance to prep everyone packing their cars with camping gear and speed boats heading for their cabins one last time. Because what’s summer (especially in Minnesota) without getting out of town and sitting in traffic?

These six songs are in no specific order, but are all songs that I’ve discovered within the last couple years. They’ve stuck with me for these times of year and wanted to share them with you all.

Everyone remembers listening to the radio in 2013 and wondering what the voice of a guy like Aloe Blacc was doing on the new Avicii single, Wake Me Up, but in the end…. It was the source on innumerable sing alongs and people covering the acoustic guitar chord progression. With some fun and arguably thoughtful lyrics supercharged by catchy EDM synthesizers and a streamline dance beat, this song should be an essential for any day at the lake (or whatever your summer fancy).

Anyone who grew up in the 90’s and remembers watching The Sandlot is familiar with the way this film tickles at nostalgic itches we all feel now and again. South Carolinian melodic hardcore band, Hundredth, did just that when paying homage to the film with the music video for Remain and Sustain. This song’s driving guitar coupled with heartfelt lyrics and an ear worm bridge section makes this the perfect song to crank in the car. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but give the sunny instrumentals a try! It will make you want to jump in a pool and play baseball with your friends… a lot.

One of my best friends and I have this ongoing debate over the best Relient K record, but we can both agree that Collapsible Lung was less than desirable by comparison to others in the band’s discography. Despite my reservations about the album, it does have few select tracks that stand out. The opening track, Don’t Blink, is one. Fueled by pop rock guitars, bright and booming production, with Matt Thiessen’s angsty vocals in the chorus, this song defined summer of 2013 for me! It’s continued to be one of my favorites for balmy summer days!

Switchfoot’s latest release took an experimental turn for the meaningful and rootsier. Exploring their beginnings in surfing and rock n’ roll, Fading West’s wingspan of musical influences brings songs such as Say It Like You Mean It. Coupled with the band’s documentary about traveling the world on their Vice Verses cycle, this song’s obvious Kasabian influence drives this bass heavy, guitar distorted, keyboard laden surf anthem. Fun to listen to on the lake, this song is awesome to return to at a warm time of year.

Black Stone Cherry epitomizes modern American hard rock. Gnarly sounding guitars, pummeling drums, and Chris Robertson’s gritty, soul filled voice make this band a household name. I saw this band live in 2013 with one of my best friends at a biker bar in the middle of nowhere (which made for an interesting story). Part of that set list included one of my favorite songs from the band that tells the story of an open road, Like I Roll. Though this song isn’t the most topically profound, everyone needs a song to crank the windows down and drive to – and this is one of those songs! With a catchy chord progression and rootsy lyrics about home and adventure with some grit to it, play this song…. A lot.

Undoubtedly one of modern country’s crown jewels, this song doesn’t need a lot of explanation. Darius Rucker wraps Wagon Wheel in a solid layer of contemporary country that is not only convincing, but in my mind, a classic. Rucker’s distinct voice gives this song spirit and makes this an automatic sing-along. Bottom line, this song goes for the win on any playlist for warm days, bonfires, and as my friends and I discovered a couple weeks ago, swing dancing!

Ghost Stories – Coldplay: Music Review

Bio

Considered a commercially successful alt rock deity, British natives of Coldplay have garnered multiple Grammy nominations and critically acclaimed albums over 16 years with a lush sound, some notable experimentation in later albums, and a long train of radio hits.

Background

Coldplay was one of the first handful of bands I ever “got into.” By that, I mean that I can remember singles from A Rush of Blood to the Head on my local radio stations in middle school, I saw music videos from them on MTV (*cough* when MTV used to play music), and I have followed all their releases up until their most recent venture. I even got to see them live in 2012 on their Mylo Xyloto cycle as a Christmas gift from my mom and sister. Between the light spectacle, the flashing bracelets on ten thousand fans, the elaborate staging, and a killer set list, Coldplay’s live performance is chalked up to an all time favorite of mine so far. After a good musical conversation over Buffalo Wild Wings a few weeks ago, I felt it would be good to review their latest release, Ghost Stories.

Instrumentation/Songwriting

As much as I can say that I’ve enjoyed Coldplay for the better part of 10 years, there have been moments where I wasn’t enamored by their phase of sugary art rock with albums like, Mylo Xyloto. There are a couple good singles, but for the most part, I felt like the band had buckled under the pressure of a record label to write a formulaically pop rock album devoid of their old sentiment.

The alternate cover to their album, Ghost Stories. Photo credit: Substream magazine
The alternate cover to their album, Ghost Stories. Photo credit: Substream magazine

I think Coldplay is famous for writing smooth, moody alt rock smothered in tragic love stories. Though it sounds trite, it has worked for them famously on albums like Parachutes, A Rush of Blood to the Head, and X&Y. The release of Viva La Vida demonstrated their willingness to explore new musical territory… partially at the whims of critics who lambasted their last release for a lack of diversity. I actually really liked Viva La Vida. It’s a fun album with a good feel. It’s now 2015 and a year has gone by since the release of Ghost Stories, so I’ve had a while to digest it. My first impression of this album is that it feels like a return to form in lineage of earlier albums. There’s an ambiance to Ghost Stories that I haven’t heard since X&Y. In fact, this album takes a turn for the somber. Considering the lyrical content, I think it’s fitting that this album is so dim, but I’ll get into that later.

Track Reviews

Midnight was the first song I heard off this record, last spring. The music video was released by the band and quickly gained traction for the band’s sharp musical left turn. This song begins with a single dissonant keyboard loop that builds on itself with heavy 808’s and sub bass. coldplay-360780 It showcases a verse-verse-verse structure that departs from older material. Chris Martin’s vocals are also processed through a vocoder to give it a trippier vibe. A Sky Full of Stars is the example of a song that looks at older material circa 2001 in the rearview mirror. Notable EDM artist, Avicii, produces this song with an earworm chorus and a dance beat that goes against the grain of this whole record. I think it’s interesting that this song falls at the end of this album, because the course of this album runs slow and deep – it’s the most radio friendly track and it has the liveliest tone to it than any other song on this record. The opening song, Always In My Head starts this album with a dreamy synthesizer that keeps an atmospheric pace with the aid of a drum pad and minimal instrumentation. The album ends with O that has Chris Martin’s signature piano prowess. It actually reminded me of songs like, Amsterdam, off A Rush of Blood to the Head that drips with moody, melancholy instrumentation that tugs at many a heart string.

I would say, aside from A Sky Full of Stars and Magic, there are no other radio singles within sight of this album. It gives me the impression they wrote what they wanted didn’t feel like the band was trying to lay their material down at the feet of a corporate giant looking for radio smashes.

Production

So many of these songs have very lush instrumentation armed with simple subtleties. I think it’s demonstrative of the layers of thought put into this record. The sound is particular, the beat choices are unique, and song structures are varied. The midi strings, keyboards, and electronica give some depth to already ethereal songs, but they surprisingly don’t overpower. I know that there’s some debate amongst those who have commented on this record about overproduction. Though this album does have some of the tightest, sterile sounding material from this band, I think it fits for this album’s style.

Lyricism

If you listen to Coldplay’s discography, you will find that Chris Martin is not the most well spoken guy or lyrically crafty. What he brings is the boy-next-door plead for lost love and puts his heart on the table. This album pontificates on all of those things with 44 minutes bemoaning his divorce with Gwenyth Paltrow. To be honest… it’s hard for me to get into for that reason. I can remember Coldplay’s last two albums having more diverse lyrical content that had inspiration. I think that with a return to form of sorts and considering the tone of this record, maybe it’s fitting that Chris Martin writes a break-up album. With that, I feel as if there’s only so much that someone could say on a break up record that someone else hasn’t already said.

photo credit: geovandhy
photo credit: geovandhy

I think that surfaces throughout the lyricism and I think it shows through in the journey Chris Martin takes. From beginning in sorrow to ending the album knowing life can be lived on the other side of it, nothing is new.

Conclusion

This was a different record for Coldplay. Ghost Stories sails in uncharted musical territory that is pulled off in a satisfactory way. Despite one-dimensional lyricism and some uninteresting passages, the experimental nature an intimacy of this record makes it an accessible, easy listen. Huzzah, Coldplay.