Tuesday, October 27, 2009

CD Review - The Swell Season - Strict Joy

I picked up the new The Swell Season CD today, called Strict Joy. I got the deluxe edition, which has a second CD of live tracks from the last couple of tours. A total of 32 tracks - 13 make up the new CD and 19 are live tracks.

A quick glance at the writing credits of the new songs betrays that this is more of a Glen Hansard album. Marketa Irgolva only has a couple of writing credits. But her voice and piano are very present, and the harmonies are still sweet.

The album opens with a couple of good, solid upbeat tunes (Low Rising and Feeling the Pull). Not until the third song (In These Arms) do we get a song that sounds like the Once soundtrack, with Irglova harmonizing with Hansard over soft acoustic progressions. These three songs were released over the last couple of months as singles on iTunes but this is the first time I had heard any of them.

The fourth song, The Rain, comes back up in tempo with full band and impassioned relationship-based lyrics from Hansard.

In fact, relationships seem to be the theme of this album and there doesn’t seem to be any effort to hide the fact that it’s a very Fleetwood Mac-ish break-up album. The songs are loaded with references to the on-again off-again nature of Irglova and Hansard’s relationship. Lots of songs about longing, people.

But where the Once soundtrack and The Swell Season CD are mostly softer, acoustic based discs with a couple of rockers, Strict Joy is a better balance.

Not knowing anything at all about these two (except for the movie) when I saw them the first time live, they were mostly acoustic and quiet, which is what I kind of expected. The second time through, however, Hansard had most of his band The Frames with him, and they did lots of really upbeat, rocking numbers. Some of The Frames tunes like Fitzcarraldo were fairly face-melting. That rocking side of the band comes through more on this disc.

A good example is High Horses, which starts out as an arpeggiated, repeating piano riff but really takes off at the end with full band coming in and bringing the energy level waaaaay up. This one will be on par with Fitzcarraldo live. The Verb does something similar structurally, with some very nice call and response vocal trade offs and a great build at the end with a nice use of strings.

Irglova’s two songs are strong. Fantasy Man is pretty obviously about Hansard and is well done, with dare I say an Eastern European vibe to it (it would make sense, since that is where she is from). I Have Loved You Wrong is the standout here. I remember seeing this one live and thinking, what the hell is this song? It’s a very trancy song, with a repeating bass line and very tasty piano noodlings. But the repeating vocal bit that takes the song out was mind blowing live, and although it is understated on this version, the song is done really well on this disc. Might be her best song.

Suffice it to say, if you like the music from the movie Once, and/or the first Swell Season album, you’ll love this. And if you dig The Frames, you’ll probably like it too. I am still discovering that band, so I don’t have a ton of insight there. But the new material picks up where the last left off, with enough familiarity to link it to the previous work but also with enough of an evolution so that you don’t feel like you are listening to a re-hash.

There really isn’t a bad track on the CD although the last two songs are a bit sleepy, although very pretty - especially the outro to Somebody Good, which closes the CD with some gorgeous vocal harmonies between Hansard and Irglova. A nice way to wrap up the CD.

And of course you get what amounts to a full live CD as a bonus of you get the deluxe edition. Which is nice.


BubbaCoop said...

Somebody Good is on the deluxe CD? I was under the impression it was only the vinyl.

Isorski said...

Yeah it's the bonus track on the iTunes versions, which is how I got it.