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You always know things aren’t quite right when a band starts sending mixed messages, and that’s the case in the Sigur Ros universe.  A couple of years ago we got the old ‘we’re on an indefinite hiatus’, which is always code for ‘we can’t stand the sight of each other’.  Then came Inni, a film of the band playing live and an accompanying sound-track album; both are excellent, but was it a way of keeping the fans onboard before they lost their patience?  Then we heard that Sigur Ros had started working on a new album, but ditched all that material because it wasn’t any good, and fair enough, quite frankly.  But now, almost completely out of the blue, or the misty green if the sleeve is anything to go by, we have Valtari – the sixth studio album.

That should lead to wild partying in the streets, especially for those of us who’ve been following the band from the beginning, but, regrettably, there’s more to worry about.  During interviews to promote this latest record the members of Sigur Ros have been saying things like ‘we were going through old songs that we’d previously discarded and found things that weren’t so bad’ and ‘we rediscovered this bit and that bit and just stuck it all together and – hey presto! – a new tune’.  Even more concerning, it appears that the band had to give the lot to Alex Somers, the partner of lead-singer and guitarist Jón ‘Jónsi’ Þór Birgisso, to make something of the whole wretched mess.

So, is it a mess or not?  On first listen, yes it is – the songs do indeed feel like scraps.  Some of the songs sound like not-up-to-scratch intros to songs from previous albums; one, ‘Eganda’, the opener, sounds like a whole bunch of said intros stuck together with masking tape and without much care.  Apparently for a while there somewhere the band was working on a choral record and elements of that remain on Valtari – the most obvious is ‘Dauoalogn’, which is Sigur Ros at its most ethereal, although the title translates as ‘calm death’.  Yes, on this record, the title of which means ‘steam-roller’, we’ve heard it all before.  There’s the ground-swelling, at times ground-breaking prettiness, Jónsi’s pixie-esque falsetto and cello-bowed guitar, and, all in all, the big Icelandic landscape atmospherics.  ‘Varuo’ is a case in point, which, it has to be said, is a Sigur Ros promised fulfilled.

After a few listens, however, half a dozen say, especially if you’ve got a fire going, you’re a bit pissed, and you have a feeling that the world’s going to hell in a hand-basket, Valtari as an album starts to make sense – glorious sense.  What Somers has managed to do is craft from off-cuts an extraordinary suite of songs, which, as a whole, is closer to the magical Riceboy Sleeps album he made with his partner than anything in the Sigur Ros back catalogue.  Although, of course, this is still Sigur Ros.  And that does pose a problem for the band: what on earth do they do now?  I can’t help hoping that this is it, and I can’t help thinking that this is meant to be it; it certainly does sound like the credits are rolling.  Even look at the pic above: they’re walking away from us.

I used the word extraordinary before.  Is that really appropriate, considering the mind-blowing music that Sigur Ros has made over its twelve-year career?  Yes, it’s necessary.  In the end, this is an elegant record: it’s graceful, it’s refined, and – here’s another word that has to be used – beautiful.  However, Somers knows that there’s dark in the light, gravity in the uplift, danger in the sugar-sweetness.  He’s allowed the band to take their sweeping, majestic post-rock sound to its conclusion.  And there I go again, don’t I, using words of endings, because I can’t get away from that feeling that on Valtari we’re hearing the sound of an ending.  If you’re not convinced, or have never been convinced by Sigur Ros, search out the title song from the album – it’s hard to imagine an ending more exquisite than this.  And Jónsi doesn’t even sing on the bloody thing.

I’m writing on a windy, drizzly, overcast Goulburn day.  I’ve had to triple-peg the washing on the clothesline otherwise it will end up down the street.  On the Tuesday just gone it was so windy – with gusts of 80km/hour we were the windiest place in the state – that one of my standard rose-bushes was decapitated; I’ve bandaged it up with masking tape and, miraculously, it seems to be recovering.  The chooks aren’t coping as well: Mrs Honky became poorly during the wind-storm and proceeded to go downhill until I woke up yesterday morning to find her still body on the floor of the run, the score marks of her legs in the dirt as if she thought she could outrun this.  But I noticed that she was making small, long, slow breaths, so I got down to a crouch.  She opened her eyes and looked at me, or at least in my general direction.  A few minutes later I returned to the run with gardening gloves and a large plastic bag.  She didn’t open her eyes, and her body was no longer breathing.

So here I am today, with the wind and the drizzle and the overcast sky.  And Inni by Sigur Ros playing on the television.  If there’s been one constant in my life since 2000 it has been Sigur Ros, the band that plays music which sounds like the earth is simultaneously falling apart and coming together, all because they’re from Iceland.  I’ve been with the band since their miraculous Ágætis byrjun album.  At first, I wasn’t taken by the enigmatically titled ( ) record, until I realised that I’d played it non-stop for eighteen months.  He Who Likes To Sing Along To Some Songs and I were lucky enough to see the band play at the Enmore Theatre in Sydney just before the Takk album was released in 2006, so that record will always remind me of how we downed a bucket-load of vodka and soda before the band took to the stage, and when they did how overwhelming it was – there were tears, that’s what I can tell you.

In 2007 Sigur Ros put out Hvarf/Heim, which is a cross between a b-side collection and live footage of the band playing intimate shows across their homeland.  And then came Med sud i eyrum vid endalaust (meaning ‘with a buzz in our ears we play endlessly’), the record with the young folk doing a nudie run across the road on the cover.  For the first time Sigur Ros worked with a producer (U2, Nine Inch Nails, Nick Cave, PJ Harvey et al), and the production is more three dimensional, the songs more varied, even if Med sud contains ‘Ara batur’, which is so widescreen Hollywood that you expect some trout-mouthed actress to leap out of the speakers and try to whisk you off to the altar.

And then the band went kaput, at least a temporary-hiatus kind of kaput.

But now we have Inni, which is the essentially the soundtrack to a film of the band playing live in London in 2008.  Where I’m from, for $39 you can get the DVD, two CDs, and the album across three vinyl records, which is quite a bargain.  In Inni, Sigur Ros sound more aggressively electric, which is no doubt because they aren’t playing with Amiina, their regular four-piece string section.  Lead singer Jonsi Birgisson is in extraordinary form, somehow sharing the secrets of his life even though we English-speaking types have no idea what he’s saying because he uses either Icelandic or his own made-up language, or an infuriatingly appealing combination of both.  As usual the band around him is both tight and expressive, although loose-limbed drummer Orri Pall Dyrason can sometimes sound as if he’s barely able to hold it all together.

Jonsi, who in the footage looks like a cross between Jimmy Hendrix and Adam Ant, and his almost pitch-perfect falsetto and his way of playing the guitar – with a violin bow – is undoubtedly the focus of Inni.  But just as important is the film-work by Vincent Morisset.  It is grainy, it is gritty, it is menacing.  Morisset takes us onto the stage, almost as though he wants to give us a first-person experience of the band.  He does not say, look how popular and talented Sigur Ros are; instead he takes us inside the band and beyond.  I mentioned the word menacing, and it’s an appropriate word for Inni.  Sure Sigur Ros can be pretty and beautiful, and yes sometimes they have their Enya moments, but there’s darkness at their core, a terrible darkness; anyone who’s noticed the David Lynch-esque motifs in Heim will know what I mean.  Morisset reveals the band’s gravitas by focussing on the musicians and their music; how revealing are these four men, how unafraid they are of being emotional.

There’s very little sweetness and light to Inni, which is a good thing.  Especially for days like this one, with the gale-force wind howling around the house, the grim sky, a dead bird in the garbage bin, and a rose-bush stuck together with masking tape.  Because if Sigur Ros says anything it’s this: work fucking hard to live the deepest life possible, because there’s nothing else.

Okay, stand well back, because I’m about to do something I’ve never done before, and, dare I say it, you’ve probably never seen done before.  Am I about to turn myself inside out?  Levitate while cross-legged?  Speak in two languages at once?  No.  What I’m about to do is quote Australian literary legend David Malouf in what’s essentially a review of three pop-music records.  In his article titled ‘Music, the most abstract of the arts, is mathematics on the move’, published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 15 May 2010, Malouf asks, So what is music for?  What does it do to us or for us?  What happens when we give ourselves over to actually listening to it?  Music vibrates in the air around us and involves us; it touches and moves us.  Its rhythms take us back to primitive foot-tapping and finger-clicking or clapping; the regularity of its beat excites our heartbeats and pleases us with its natural order; it invites the body, even when the body remains still, to sway and dance.  All music takes us back to the body; all instruments discover what they do in what the body does.

Three records that are currently doing exactly what Malouf is talking about, taking me back to my body, and getting me pretty bloody excited in the process, are ‘High Violet’ by The National, ‘Crystal Castles’ by Crystal Castles, and ‘This Is Happening’ by LCD Soundsystem, the latter band surely being the most genuinely enthralling bunch of contemporary musicians working today.

First up, The National’s ‘High Violet’.  Frankly, these guys are so god-damn frustrating.  They could be great, they could be huge.  They could take REM’s indy-music crown, and part of me wants this to happen, because on ‘High Violet’ they get mighty, mighty close to making something truly significant.  This is a big record, one that’s best played up loud so the richness and the rawness makes your rib-bones rattle.  Melancholic, intimate, but still rocking, it’s an intriguing beast of a thing.  In parts, especially on album-opener ‘Terrible Love’, it owes a little to Sigur Ros, in terms of the buzz-saw atmospherics, and Arcade Fire in terms of the naked ambition.  ‘Afraid of Everyone’ (I put my hand up to say, yes, that’s me), ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’, and ‘Lemonworld’ is a stunning trifecta of songs and worth the price-tag alone.  The frustration comes from Matt Berninger’s voice, which while deeply attractive and listenable does tend to mangle the lyrics into an unintelligible slop so that a song’s never given the opportunity to properly blossom into a classic.  But this album grows and grows on you until you just can’t live without it, and perhaps that’s where The National’s true genius lies.

Crystal Castles has now given us their second album and it’s…um…totally friggin’…beautiful.  Yes, beautiful.  Though I should caution that at times it’s an ugly kind of beauty.  As with the duo’s first – and also self-titled – album, there’s the mix of scratchy, screechy snippets of dancey noise (a bit like a jacked-up Sonic Youth trapped in a computer-game shop) and then great big slathers of almost-but-not-quite trance.  This time around, however, it all comes together in a more cohesive whole.  ‘Celestica’, ‘Year of Silence’ (which samples ‘Inni Mer Syngur Vitleysingur’ by Sigur Ros, revealing the dark soul of those Icelandic noise-niks, which, to my mind, is missing from Jonsi’s solo effort ‘Go’, though the darkness is all over his and his partner Alex Somers’ extraordinary Riceboy Sleeps album) and ‘Vietnam’ make for fantastic listening.  For those of an age there’s a fair bit of inspiration from the 90s-era, Rickenbacker-strumming English band Lush in many of these beguiling songs, and that’s no bad thing.  As long as the world has artists like Crystal Castles in it, dance music and electronica is in very…dangerous hands indeed.  Bugger it, I might just pour myself a glass of champagne, turn out the lights, crank this album up very loud, and dance around the lounge-room like a dervish until the Old Lady of the House and Cat the Ripper give me the evil eye before darting under the bed.

And so we come to LCD Soundsystem, which is the first band in years that have spun my nipples so hard that I’m amazed that I still have a chest.  Mixing brilliant, thoughtful beats and the wittiest of lyrics, a gorgeous though not unchallenging pop sensibility, and perfect production, ‘This Is Happening’ is already in my Top Ten Albums of 2010.  Like the band’s previous record, ‘Sound of Silver’, the influences are many, though in almost every song I’m reminded of Talking Heads’ ‘Remain in Light’, which just so happens to be in my Top Ten Albums of All Time.  Having said that, the stunning, feedback-drenched ‘All I Want’ sounds suspiciously like a mash-up of David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ and any Strokes song you care to mention, just infinitely better.  While it’s true that there aren’t as many highs as on ‘Sound of Silver’, this is a more minimal record, and it’s one that deserves – and rewards – close listening, because there’s more than one devil in the detail here.  And it’s all so very, very New York that I almost feel like going out to graffiti something just for the heck of it.  Apparently James Murphy, LCD Soundsystem’s key protagonist, has said that this is the last outing for this particular musical incarnation.  If this is true, good on him for bowing out while completely on top of his game.

David Malouf in his Sydney Morning Herald article goes on to say the following: One of the opportunities art offers us is simply to stand still for a moment and look, or to sit still and listen; the pleasure of being firmly present while the ego goes absent and our consciousness is fired with something other than ourselves.  For some reason, losing ourselves in this way is a form of self-discovery.  Going passive and absent energises us, gives us a renewed sense of presence. Whether you want to sit still and be swept away or dance like a complete idiot without a care in the world (I can flit between the two with remarkable ease, I should admit), being fully present in the company of these three albums could make you very happy to be living on this planet in the year 2010.

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If you’re interested in reading the full Malouf article, it can be found here.

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