THE SWELL SEASON
[Rating: 4 stars]
The Irish have always had a corner on the songwriting market. From acts like Van Morrison and U2, to bands like Snow Patrol and The Frames, to solo artists like Damien Rice, no matter how different stylistically, they all share a common thread: When they communicate, the singular sound is pure emotion wrapped in melody.
Enter modern singer/songwriter Glen Hansard, an Irishman, who, when paired with classically-trained Czech pianist and singer Marketa Irglova, really hit on something unique. In 2007, they made an independent film about their musical partnership. That low-budget release, Once, brimmed with heart and swept the Oscars, surprising just about everybody, including Hansard and Irglova. The movie soundtrack, which captured the raw spark of such cool collaboration, garnered fans across the globe.
The follow-up from Hansard and Irglova, now moonlighting as The Swell Season, continues down a path where feeling reigns supreme. The tracks are more complex this time around.
The groove-driven “Low Rising” kicks things off with a soulful, old-school Van Morrison vibe. Next up, the loose piano and acoustic guitar-based “Feeling the Pull” enraptures with its rapid, descending scale melody in the verse. The upbeat pace evokes a ‘60s era Bob Dylan (only it’s done in half the time of a Dylan tune, clocking in at just more than two minutes), complete with harmonica to close it out. The album-openers are more of an anomaly, though, compared with the rest of Strict Joy’s tracks. The tunes following unfold with a decidedly progressive pop feel.
The masterful “The Rain” starts off with a warm acoustic guitar and the interlocking harmonies of Hansard and Irglova, but the track increasingly fills out with a sweeping crescendo of percussion, strings, guitars and background vocals that build into a sound much more dense than these two voices alone could achieve.
“Fantasy Man” is fronted by Irglova. Her delicate vocals are appropriately paired with this intimate arrangement, although the song, at more than five minutes, starts to drag after a while.
The hypnotic low end on “I Have Loved You Wrong” signals that a sad song is coming. Irglova’s soft, plaintive vocals are so convincing that, despite the lyrical despair, the song is sure to garner repeated spins from listeners who’ve lived the singer’s story.
Overall, Strict Joy features first-class artistry. There are brilliant, crisp tones to titillate, and guts enough to thrill.