17 May 2016

Love Letter For Fire by Sam Beam and Jesca Hoop

From The Sampler, 7:30 pm on 17 May 2016
Sam Beam and Jesca Hoop

Sam Beam and Jesca Hoop Photo: Josh Wool

Nick Bollinger reviews a set of surreal and romantic duets by Sam Beam and Jesca Hoop.

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When you think about how many solo singer-songwriters there are, it’s hardly surprising that there are so many songs that dwell on solitary reflection. Put a couple of songwriters together, though, and suddenly you’ve got a conversation.

The better known of this pair is Sam Beam - the North Carolina-based singer and songwriter who has recorded for the past fifteen years as Iron and Wine. But for this recording he’s joined by California-born and currently Manchester-ensconced Jesca Hoop (whose claims to fame include having been a member of Shearwater, and was once employed as nanny by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan.)

But it’s not just the fact that there are two voices here that makes the whole thing less solitary. There often seems to be a dialogue going on within the song itself.

The story goes that Beam had been entertaining the idea of a duo project for a while, and had a hunch that Hoop might be the right collaborator, though the pair had never actually met. With a view to advancing his plan, Beam invited Hoop to tour as an opening act for Iron and Wine. At the end of the tour, it was Hoop who put to Beam the suggestion of collaboration. And the sense that there is some pretty happy chemistry here seems to extend to the music. There’s a celebratory, romantic quality about songs like these that is just a little different from anything I’ve heard Sam Beam do before.

Beam and Hoop sing beautifully together, and Hoop’s presence seems to draw something out of the normally understated Beam. Not that he’s unrecognisable; the soft, folky surfaces are familiar from his records as Iron and Wine. Still these songs seem to draw bigger, more full-throated performances than I’m used to.

Though the voices and guitars of Beam and Hoop are central to all thirteen of these songs, the occasional addition of strings, the bass of Sebastian Steinberg and colourful percussion of Wilco drummer Glen Kotche gives some of these tracks the felling of small epics.

The other crucial collaborator here is producer and recording engineer Tucker Martine. If you’re familiar with the Decemberists, or the singer Laura Veirs to whom he is married, you will have heard the work before of the Portland-based sound man. He’s a master at mixing acoustic with electronic sounds, creating a sound world that can seem both intimate and infinite.

Sam Beam and Jesca Hoop’s album radiates trust and sharing, humour and imagination. It is called Love Letter For Fire, but if there’s anything being burned here, it is surely only for warmth.

Songs featured: Midas Touch, One Way To Pray, The Lamb You Lost, Know The Wild That Wants You, Bright Lights & Goodbyes, We Two Are A Moon.

Love Letter For Fire is available on Sub Pop Records.