Monday, October 26, 2009

Album Review: The Swell Season - Strict Joy

The Swell Season, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, are back with Strict Joy, their first proper album after the Once soundtrack with their Oscar-winning song "Falling Slowly."

Hansard is still the driving force on the album, but for the first time I hear more of him and less of his previous band, The Frames. His previous work had a tendency to be overwrought, but this album is full of warm nooks and crannies that can be explored endlessly.

Irglova performs beautifully during the duets — her haunting vocals are the perfect complement to the earnest Hansard — but her solo tracks like “Fantasy Man” feel a little stiff.

Gone are the sweeping anthems of love and loss and in their place are intensely personal, sparse songs. “In These Arms” and “Paper Cup” present this form and Hansard perfects it in on “Back Broke,” a crushing and beautiful reflection.

To balance the quiet and delicate side of the album, The Swell Season mix in everything from easy blues (“Low Rising”) to indie rock (“High Horses”). Producer Peter Katis (The National, Interpol) has done a fantastic job of building around Hansard's and Irglova's foundation of piano and guitar with strings, horns, percussion, mandolin and more. Despite all these additions, the tracks are remarkably nuanced.

What sets The Swell Season apart is Hansard's honesty. None of the emotions here are forced. When he sounds battered and wounded, he is. When he sounds joyful, he is. It would be difficult to find an album as genuine and sincere as Strict Joy.

Strict Joy will be released in North America on Oct. 27 via Anti Records.

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