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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.

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.

The XX by The XX.  This is one heck of an album: minimal without being bland, tuneful without being vacuously poppy, atmospheric without disappearing up its own bum.  ‘Basic Space’ is a cracker (that’s two bum references in one paragraph), as is ‘Crystalised’.  Robert Smith must be listening with considerable interest.  You can only hope this band has enough juice in it for more than one album (though things aren’t looking good: a guitarist has already done a runner).

Scars by Basement Jaxx.  This is just so full of ideas it’s hard not to get lost in the balls of it all, and even the weaker songs, the ballads, are a joy.  I loved ‘Raindrops’ the first time I heard it on the radio and a month or so later I still can’t get enough of it.  Sure Scars might sound like your music collection shoved into a blender, but who cares when it’s as good as this.

Riceboy Sleeps by Jonsi and Alex.  I must admit to being a complete and utter Sigur Ros obsessive (though that band’s latest album, Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust, had some great moments as well as the most shlockingly Hollywood-soundtrack thing they’ve ever done), so when I saw this in my record-shop I snapped it up immediately.  And it’s a beauty: sure, it’s gentle and ambient but, according to the boys, no synths were used in its creation, and that approach brings an almost overwhelming warmth to the music.  That said, it’s not all sweetness and light: ‘Sleeping Giant’ could well end up appearing in a David Lynch film.

Blood Bank by Bon Iver.  For Emma, for Ever Ago is a modern-day classic in my book – it’s one of those albums that I love listening to on vinyl – and whilst nothing on this EP is as good as what’s on the main collection, there’s a lot to like here.  ‘Blood Bank’ is a slow-burner of a song and ‘Woods’, a multi-layered, heavily treated a capella piece, hits its mark bang on.

The Resistance by Muse.  Sure, Muse are getting more and more ridiculous (and, as everyone says, Queen-lite) as their career goes stratospheric, but this album, for me, is a guilty pleasure.  ‘Unnatural Selection’ is one of the best things they’ve done, much better than the often-lauded three-part ‘Exogenesis’, which closes the album.  Strap on the air guitar, slip into a pair of Freddie Mercury hot-pants and rock out with your…windows shut.

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