Iceland’s Sigur Ros has amassed a worldwide cult following based on some of the most hauntingly esoteric music to be released beneath the rock heading over the past decade-plus. The band’s songs are delivered via an imaginary, invented language that is based loosely on Icelandic dialects, and its songs come across more often than not as the musical analog of a particularly non-linear sequence in a David Lynch film. The band’s music is beautifully weird, then, and unapologetically psychedelic and anti-pop in scope. It’s surprising the group has become as successful as it has. It’s even more surprising that, after more than 10 years perfecting its fever-dream of a sound, the trio has opted to suddenly cast it aside in favor of a much more conventional rock approach for the new “Kveikur.”
Well, conventional by Sigur Ros standards, any way. “Kveikur” is still plenty weird. But its song structures are simpler, its tenor more rock-oriented and its overall vibe much more arena-friendly. Sigur Ros albums have always had much more in common with ambient music than they have with anything resembling riff-rock, but look out, now – “Kveikur” is packed with riffs, with drums that fall into recognizable grooves and on occasion flat out rock, and melodies that sound like big, fat hooks rather than bits of dream-logic ephemera.
Vocalist/guitarist Jonsi still favors an achingly beautiful high-tenor that shifts with seeming ease into an otherworldly falsetto just as the songs move from plaintive verse into reach-for-the-heavens chorus. “Hrafnitinna” finds the singer multitracking his vocals in service of a yearning-infused chorus that eventually falls away into an elegaic brass arrangement. “Isjaki” is as close to pop music as Sigur Ros is ever likely to get, with its ’80s alternative-inspired drum figure pushing along a sublimely weird vocal melody. The title tune is awash in reverb and fuzz-toned guitars, and sounds like the Flaming Lips, minus the spiked Kool-Aid and sunshine.
Taken in one single burst, “Kveikur” sounds like the greatest pop album ever recorded on a planet other than Earth. It’s as strangely gorgeous as the best Sigur Ros music of the past, but its relatively stripped-back, more listener-friendly vibe suggest the turning of a new corner for this wonderful band.
– Jeff Miers
Sing Me The Songs: Celebrating the Works of Kate McGarrigle
[Nonesuch, two discs]
A confession: I don’t know if there’s any song lyric of the 1970s – not even Randy Newman’s “Sail Away” – whose savage irony blew me away the way Kate and Anna McGarrigle’s still astonishing “Work Song” did when I first heard Maria Muldaur sing it.
“Back before the blues were blue/When the good ol’ songs were new/Songs that may no longer please us/’Bout the darkies, about Jesus/Mississippi Minstrels the color of molasses/Strummed their banjos to entertain their massas/Some said garbage, others cried art/You couldn’t call it soul, you had to call it heart.
“Backs broke bending digging holes to plant the seeds/The owners ate the cane and the workers ate the weeds/Put the wood in the stove, the water in the cup/You worked so hard that you died standing up.”
In the world of the Paula Deen Follies, the McGarrigles’ complex satire of America’s musical past couldn’t possibly be more up-to-date.
Kate McGarrigle died of cancer at the age of 63. She left an extraordinary life work – those songs written and performed with her sister Anna and, even finer, two huge talents that came as the children of her marriage to Loudin Wainwright – Rufus and Martha Wainwright.
Her kids and her sister led tribute concerts to her in London, Toronto and New York with proceeds going to the Kate McGarrigle Foundation to both fight sarcoma and preserve her legacy. Highlights from the concerts are on these two discs and it makes it one of the great discs of the year.
There’s everyone here from Jimmy Fallon doing their “Swimming Song” to Norah Jones doing “(Talk to Me O) Mendocino” with the Wainwrights. This is about as family as tributes get – filled with Wainwrights and McGarrigles and Muldaur’s daughter Jenni, Peggy Seeger, Linda and Richard Thompson. The message isn’t just that talent is powerful but family is, too.
Of no small matter, of course, is the presence of one of the great singers of our time, Emmylou Harris, who can be heard on five of these selections, including a version of “Heart Like a Wheel” with Anna, Martha Wainwright and the amazing Krystle Warren that, if anything, epitomizes the whole wonderful collection.
It’s music of wit, sophistication, savage satire and immense emotional power – sometimes, incredibly, all together.
– Jeff Simon
Both/And: Solo Electro-Acoustic Adventures
Good for Denny Zeitlin. As with Pat Metheny and his “Ochestrion” project, Zeitlin has not only kept the spirit of adventure alive and well somewhere within, but he has let it flourish sometimes.
Heaven knows it does here. Unfortunately, so does profound sonic ugliness which I’m afraid is all that can be said about a good two-thirds of these experiments. The best of it by far is when Zeitlin simply plays the piano, at which the full-time San Francisco psychiatrist is also one of the great jazz musicians of the past 50 years.
Let’s admit that his synthesized bass soloing is rather remarkable, but most of the rest is far more disagreeable and unedifying to listen to than it should be.
“Both/And” isn’t really it. Neither/Nor is more like it.
[New Focus Recordings]
Soprano Tony Arnold and pianist Jacob Greenberg, two musicians associated with the University at Buffalo, do a yeoman’s job with this ponderous music, something that does not have that big of an audience. I have to say I suffer from Messiaen guilt. I admire his passion for what he did and his devout Catholic faith, and a few people whose judgment I respect have been crazy about him. Still, I find his music hard to warm up to. So while I admire this disc, it is on an intellectual level.
Greenberg is masterful in the 1948, 13-minute long piano piece “Canteyodjaya” (he can play it, but can he type it?). It is robust and rhythmic, and his performance has an appealing freedom. You could tell people this was out-there jazz and they would believe you. Arnold is adept as always, her voice steady and sweet. Between the two of them I cannot imagine a better performance of “Harawi: Song of love and death.” Abstract and very French, the 13 songs – happily accompanied by texts and translations – are distinguished by creative, chiming piano. Arnold, meanwhile, gets to show off part of her vast array of unusual vocal effects. Especially memorable is “Doundou Tchil,” a kind of breathless chant over staccato piano. Messiaen appears to be enjoying himself with this one. And I have to admit I did warm to the gently rocking “L’Amour de Piroutcha,” which can call to mind French and Spanish lullabies.
– Mary Kunz Goldman