If Beam and Hoop sounds like a gymnastics event, it is the songwriting that stretches and flexes on this fluid performance. Fans of both should be thrilled.
Time: 13 tracks / 39 mins
It always looked like a fascinating combination. Sam Beam became a critics’ darling as the vulnerable Iron and Wine, while Jesca Hoop has been more assertive, her fresh, ever-changing take on songwriting stretching Beam’s slightly more traditional approach.
While there is a creative tension between the two, pulling them apart to stretch boundaries, their voices blend beautifully, harmonising their way through most of the tracks on this highly satisfying collection.
The 58-second opener “Welcome to Feeling” is a velvet shard of a song that promises some left of centre tweaks to some very strong songs. There’s no holding back the best material for solo projects.
Hoop’s presence brings some stronger vocals out of Beam. While it is a collaborate effort, she seems to have a slight edge on taking the lead, especially in “Chalk it up to Chi,” which has one of the strongest identities. While there are simpler, easily-sung, Iron and Wine-like songs such as the melodic “Valley Clouds” and “Bright Lights and Goodbyes,” or the fragile “Soft Place to Rest,” Hoop’s influence adds a creative flair.
It’s hard not to see her as a Kate Bush for the twenty-first century: slightly quirky, visually very colourful, and taking songs in unpredictable directions.
Beam is apparently an ex-Christian and Hoop an ex-Mormon, so religious imagery abounds. “Valley Clouds” is full of sermons, baptism, Christ and bells, with the context shifted to relationships, as they seem to negotiate physical love with a concern about crossing lines.
The songs are largely about relationships, sometimes treading carefully with past hurts unhealed (“You can see with your wounded eye”) and sometimes almost daring to dream of commitment. (“I’m … a determined wing /For the distant hope of a promise ring”). The duo have a deft touch with lyrics, such as, “It’s a tough road taking the name they’ll carve on our grave.”
Despite the duo format, I have been struck by how similar this is to Abigail Washburn’s excellent City of Refuge album, also produced by Tucker Martine and also featuring two main voices. Stick a bit of banjo on it and “The Lamb You Lost” would sit happily among those songs, as could “Midas Tongue.” I doubt that it is coincidence, and Martine has brought the vocals similarly upfront on this disc, sometimes breaking the backing completely for a while.
Having worked for The Decemberists, Bill Frisell, REM, Sufjan Stevens and his own wife Laura Veirs, he has a gut feeling for acoustic sounds with a left-field slant and his tiller hand steers this one in just the right direction.
With two great songsmiths working together we get a pairing that is stronger than the sum of its parts.
With every listen, this set grows in interest and its songs wrap their arms ever closer around the heart. There isn’t a dud song on here.