It’s easy to forget that Sam Beam’s first release as Iron & Wine consisted of demos for what he intended to be a more fleshed-out record. The songs on The Creek Drank The Cradle had a particular magic in that raw and sparse state, which remained in the minds of Iron And Wine fans even as Beam marched away from quiet folk to a more polished and full sound on subsequent releases. But as Beam departed further from the hushed, whispered folk of his first two albums, the results have been uneven, from the ramshackle junk-yard folk of The Shepherd’s Dog, to the bloated and often frantic Kiss Each Other Clean, to the uncharacteristic pop excursions of Ghost On Ghost.
Whatever Beam may have been chasing musically, he’s found at least a portion of it on Love Letter For Fire, a non-Iron And Wine collaboration with songwriter Jesca Hoop. Beam is the better-known half of this partnership, but the project sounds so equally split that the names on the album’s spine could be reversed. By handing half the songwriting responsibility to Hoop, Beam is untethered from both his simplest early songs and the overly ambitious missteps since. Hoop’s talents bring a wonderful variety of musical ideas to the relatively restrained album. Vocally, her melodic contributions tend to be more exciting and interesting than Beam’s straightforward, classic folk style.
On the first single, “Every Songbird Says,” their voices blend and dance around each other, with simple accompaniment led by acoustic guitar and piano. The song is a dialogue, like the classic country duets that inspired Beam to seek out another songwriter in the first place.
Beam and Hoop smartly seek to do more than just fuse together musical ideas. The duo make the most of their contrasting styles toward the end of the record, with Beam’s lead vocal on “Kiss Me Quick,” a gorgeous throwback to Iron And Wine’s best record (Our Endless Numbered Days), segueing into Hoop’s lead on “Chalk It Up To Chi,” a mesmerizing and off-kilter gem that proves the strength of this collaboration.
Gathered by producer Tucker Martine, the all-star backing band is a highlight of the record. The rhythm section alone is a thrill to hear: Bassist Sebastian Steinberg (Soul Coughing, Fiona Apple) and Wilco’s drummer Glenn Kotche are players of such nuance and skill, they add a tremendous amount to the arrangements without overshadowing the vocalists. The result is Beam’s best release since In The Reins, with a far more dynamic batch of songs, and a wider introduction to Hoop’s compelling and naturally chameleonic songwriting style.