20 Watts

20 Watts Reviews The Swell Season’s Strict Joy by Eric Vilas-Boas
The Swell Season - Strict Joy

The Swell Season give us a more-than-worthy third album

PREVIEW: DOWNLOAD The Swell Season’s “Fantasy Man” MP3
WE GIVE IT: 16/20 Watts

Steven Spielberg said of the film Once that it “gave [him] enough inspiration to last the rest of the year.” Undoubtedly, the 2007 indie singer/songwriter scene belonged to Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. The Academy fell in love with them, they later guest-starred on The Simpsons, and hipsters the world over fawned over the pair’s creative instrumentation and lilting duets.

So how do you follow up an internationally acclaimed soundtrack and reignite two years of dwindling fame? Fortunately for fans everywhere, The Swell Season are continuing to do exactly what they’ve always done: make beautiful music. They need nothing else.

The Swell Season begin their third release together with the single-ready “Low Rising” providing a nice cross-section of the album’s goings-on. While the album’s title might connote austerity and an adherence to happiness, it’s filled with layers of instrumentation and a variety of emotions. Where Hansard’s voice would previously have meandered alone, he’s accompanied by impeccably placed horns from Clark Gayton (Bruce Springsteen, Prince, Queen Latifah and more).

Gayton’s involvement in the album colors the rest of it fairly well, and not just from a sonic perspective. Strict Joy serves up a degree of production and adornment previously unheard from the duo. While higher production value is not necessarily a bad thing, it brings with it the drawback of changing the band’s sound.

The moderately lo-fi, homegrown sound pushed on the Once soundtrack and their self-titled debut is replaced with tracks like “Two Tongues,” the uplifting “Feeling the Pull,” the sing-a-long-able “The Verb” and the string-laden “Fantasy Man” With the band’s understated lyrical and instrumental nuances more clearly presented, listeners can better appreciate their pop sensibilities, reminiscent of Damien Rice’s earlier work.

On most of the album’s best tracks, like “Feeling the Pull,” “The Verb” and “Two Tongues,” Hansard and Irglová sing together to bring songs to a sense of completion. The selections without their shared presence, or more specifically without Irglová’s (Hansard sings on the entire album with the exception of “Fantasy Man”), suffer from an indistinct sonic aesthetic. They aren’t bad songs, but they could be sung by anybody, largely because of Hansard’s very typical voice.

The Swell Season have yet to release a phenomenal album. While their third concerted effort brings a variety of sounds to the table and showcases dynamic, artistic growth, it isn’t quite going to place them very highly on any best-of-year list. Nevertheless, their candor is as inexorable as their talent is unmistakable.

— Eric Vilas-Boas



Great review and you are right about the sound on this CD. I guess it makes sense, as the other two were pretty low-budget efforts. Which is of course why they sound so real. Nice to see they could still keep it real, even with big-time production. I posted a review on my blog too, at http://bit.ly/1HKsW3

Comment by Isorski

Thanks Isorski! I checked your blog; it was pretty sweet, and I think you’re on-point as far as their album goes as well. Interesting that you got a 2-disc edition. If the live material’s worthwhile, give me a holler.

Comment by vilbobag

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