Sam Beam and Jesca Hoop – Love Letter for Fire Review

Warm, pleasant, and not as good as you'd hope.
Sub Pop Records, 2016
Purchase: Sub Pop Records

6.0 / 10

Can you think of the last time you heard a duets album that was better than the sum of its parts? Or maybe just even equal to the sum of its parts? Yeah, me neither. Perhaps Pete Yorn is the only musician who is able to pull it off – his duets album with Scarlett Johansson was among his best, and his album with J.D. King as The Olms was a high-water mark for his career. Then again, this is Pete Yorn that we’re talking about, and the high-water mark ain’t all that high. The recent collaborations of EL VY, or Wavves x Cloud Nothings, or the Raconteurs (basically a duet of Jack White vs. Brendan Benson) have proven that this is all very tricky. Typically, expectations are lower, too. We’re just happy when these things aren’t terrible.

Even so, there was reason to be thrilled about Jesca Hoop and Sam Beam of Iron & Wine working together on an album. They had worked together recently on the excellent acoustic album Undress, and their sensibilities seemed complimentary. Hoop’s songwriting style is thorny and idiosyncratic, and Iron & Wine is known for its relaxing, tuneful approach. Putting these two together should be interesting. And their mostly-acoustic album, Love Letter for Fire, can indeed be interesting at times.

But Hoop and Beam turn out to be more like oil and water rather than mac and cheese. Their voices sound wonderful together, there’s no doubt about that, but their songwriting styles don’t complement the other. As a result, Love Letter for Fire, moves back and forth between songs that sound very much like those that Hoop would write (“Chalk it up to Chi”, “Midas Touch”, “The Lamb You Lost”) and those that Iron & Wine would write. To say that Love Letter for Fire doesn’t yet sound complete feels unfair; the songs are well-crafted, but the strengths of neither artist come through completely. These ballad-like compositions aren’t as ornate as Iron & Wine’s output, and they’re not as wild as Hoop’s original work. It falls short of their usual output, but it’s all very pleasant. Easy listening. Fine. Good. Nice.

If Love Letter for Fire was released without the expectations that Hoop and Beam bring to the table, this might garner a different reaction. Hoop’s last album of original material was in 2012, and Beam’s in 2013. This duet is a warm diversion, and it’s certainly better than Beam’s previous duet album with Ben Bridwell (Sing into My Mouth), but it sounds more like this album was record for the two of them than it was for us.

Key Tracks:
“Welcome to the Feeling”
“Chalk it up to Chi”
“The Lamb You Lost”