Monday, October 26, 2009

Strict Joy

When I saw the title of The Swell Season's new album, "Strict Joy," I'll admit that I was a little concerned. They had come to be one of my favorite bands with their self-titled debut, which was characterized by soft, melancholic, mid-tempo acoustic guitar and piano songs with some strings here and there for added oomph. While it was some of the most beautiful music around, I certainly would not have referred to it as "joyful." Therein lay my worry for the new album. Upon listening to it a few times and digesting it, I have found that, while the title is apt, and the group has expanded their sound significantly, the group loses none of their power, nor any of their ability to tug at the heartstrings.
The album opens with "Low Rising," an upbeat, jazzy little number, complete with a horn section and solos from a slide guitar and a trumpet. "I want to sit you down and talk. I wanna pull back the veils and find out what it is I've done wrong," Glen Hansard sings. It is immediately clear that while the band's subject matter remains the same, they seem much more cheerful about things. The third track, "In These Arms," finds the band back doing what they do best: creating beautiful, tear-jerking ballads. The combination of the light piano in the background and the harmony created by Hansard and Irglova singing "Maybe I was born to hold you in these arms" makes this one a standout, and a definite favorite for fans of their older material. Next is "The Rain," an upbeat acoustic number that seems to keep a good balance between the new and old styles, followed by "Fantasy Man," the first song on the album led by Czech singer Marketa Irglova. This track has an interesting folky feel to it, from the plucked guitar to Irglova's subdued, almost childishly innocent vocals. My personal favorite on the album is the Irglova-led track "I Have Loved You Wrong," written from the POV of a lover who expresses great regret for the mistakes they have made in a relationship. Not an original concept by any means, but they do it SO well. If there is a single moment on the album that will make you tear up, it will be the beautiful vocal harmony at the end of this track. Easily a personal favorite of their songs.
While these are the tracks that stand out to me, there really isn't a sour moment on this new release. Lyrically, the group is as melancholic as ever. Sonically, they have branched out significantly, adding horns, electric instrumentation, and even spanish guitar courtesy of Javier Mas. You could certainly say that, instrumentally, they sound much more "joyful" than on their debut. The album is a clear evolution of their sound, and I love to see artists evolve, so I say keep it comin'.

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