The Swell Season “Strict Joy” Album Review.

12 Nov

(This has already been posted on PopWreckoning, but I thought I’d post it here anyway to spread it around as much as possible.)

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It’s almost not fair that the U.S. never got to experience Glen Hansard before 2007’s “Once,” because as of 2009, he has a 15-year history of making great bluesy-folk Irish rock with his band The Frames. And his experience mixed with 21-year-old Czech songwriter Marketa Irglova’s unsullied piano and vocals, the two once again creative a dynamic and poignant album, Strict Joy, following their 2007 Oscar win for “Falling Slowly” from the film “Once.” On their second record together, The Swell Season has expanded their musical and emotional repertoire without going too far out of their original intention.

Strict Joy opens on a bluesy Van Morrison-like tune, “Low Rising,” which was an odd choice to open the album, as its somewhat repetitive melody doesn’t hit me with a strong sense of what the album is going to encompass. And to be honest, the rest of the album doesn’t sound a whole lot like “Low Rising.” It’s a cool instance of showing the breadth of Hansard and Irglova’s songwriting, but I would have embedded it in the record as a nice change up, and started the record on track number two, “Feeling the Pull,” as it sounds to me like a sunrise. Like waking up to a sunny day with frost on the windowsill. That shows more what the album is – joyful, but still with those cold moments.

“The Rain,” “Feeling the Pull,” “High Horses” and “The Verb” provide the upbeat core of Strict Joy, which is what makes it different than The Swell Season’s first effort in 2006. This album isn’t nearly as melancholy, although it does have its moments. Stand out-tracks include the choir-laden acoustic ballad “In These Arms,” “Fantasy Man” led by Irglova’s slow lilt, and the Frames-esque throwback “Paper Cup,” which features a great guitar solo that almost sounds like Spanish finger-picking and Hansard’s soulful rasp.

Strict Joy also features a diversity of instruments and mixing, with more strings, harmonica, and even some more high-tech mixing on “Two Tongues,” and an almost Celtic-folk vibe on “I Have Loved You Wrong.” Strict Joy shows how an unlikely pairing can come together in such a way that makes perfect sense. Hansard and Irglova don’t sound like a couple of people who just got together to make music, they sound like they’ve been making music together for much longer than you’d expect because of Irglova’s age. But that may be just a sign of the group’s musicianship and undeniable chemistry. Strict Joy isn’t quite as fresh as the Swell Season’s first effort back in 2006, which people forget preceded “Once,” but just as beautiful. I’d like to see where they go next, now that the songs aren’t as strongly engrained in our minds as the story of “Once,” whether it is fact or fiction.

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❤ Abby

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