Baffling and Beautiful
Sigur Ros, Fleet Foxes and the Real Second Quarter Report

So this is the column that should have appeared last week.

My apologies for the abortion I posted instead. All I can say in my own defense is that I had a long, difficult week. I’m leaving the first version up, just so I can remind myself not to do anything like that again. And also, because the tributes to George Carlin and Michael Turner were heartfelt, and I don’t plan on repeating them here.

What’s better about this version? Well, I actually reviewed the records I meant to talk about last week, for one thing. For another, I decided to man up and actually write a second quarter report – last week, I posted my current top 10 in alphabetical order, like a whiny bitch. “Oh, it’s so hard to pick a number one! Have pity on me! Waah!” Hell with that. You’ll find the real second quarter report at the bottom of this column.

Again, sorry for letting you down last week. I’ve posted two columns this week to make up for it – this one (kind of a “requel,” like the new Incredible Hulk movie) and my take on the new Seventy Sevens album. And I’ll be back on track from now on. Thanks.

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Another week, another baffling album from a band I love.

I’m still wading my way through the new Coldplay and Death Cab for Cutie records, trying to reconcile their new directions with my expectations. I don’t have time for another Chinese puzzle, thank you very much. So what am I to do with the new Sigur Ros album, which finds the iconic Icelandic band flinging themselves down a number of new sonic burrows?

See, here’s the thing. Like a lot of people, I thought I had Sigur Ros figured out. Their sound is almost entirely indescribable, which made them surprisingly easy to review – you just throw up your hands and say, “It’s beautiful, and you have to hear it for yourself.” Here’s a band who sings in a made-up language over ever-unfolding soundscapes that last for 10 minutes at a stretch, a band who delights in crafting some of the most alien tones you can imagine, and yet forms them into shimmering towers of beautiful oddness.

Indescribable, see? It’s beautiful, and you have to hear it for yourself.

But most of that review strategy pivots on the idea that we’ll never understand Sigur Ros. Or rather, that the members of Sigur Ros will never let us understand them. All well and good back when the band issued ( ), a 75-minute near-instrumental masterwork with no song titles and no liner notes. They were shrouded in mystery, wrapped up in their own enigma, and we’d never penetrate it.

And then came Heima, the band’s documentary film. This gorgeously shot movie follows Sigur Ros (and their traveling string quartet) as they embark on an acoustic tour of Iceland, playing back yards and small rooms, and stripping their music down to its basic essentials. It completely demystified the band – here we were, hanging out with Jonsi Birgisson, and watching him let loose with that high, strange voice, and suddenly Sigur Ros was just four people who make music. There was no enigma. And I think it was possible to tell, just from watching Heima, that we couldn’t go back from here.

Sigur Ros’ fifth album, and first post-Heima, is called Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust, which translates roughly to With a Buzz in Our Ears We Play Endlessly. You can tell right away that something’s different this time. Previous Sigur Ros albums have been elaborately packaged, but this one arrives in a simple cardboard sleeve, with a photo cover depicting the four band members running naked across a road. If you’re expecting a more intimate, stripped-back Sigur Ros this time, go to the head of the class.

Med Sud is, without a doubt, the work of a demystified band. It is almost Sigur Ros’ version of a pop album, as many of the songs hover around the three- and four-minute mark. There are acoustic guitars galore, and a notable absence (with a couple of exceptions) of the band’s trademark endless crescendos. Jonsi still sings in that high-pitched tone, but he’s up front in the mix, clear and single-tracked, like a frontman instead of another instrument.

There is plenty of Sigur Ros-style stuff here, like the cyclical piano figure of “Med Sud I Eyrum.” But there’s plenty they’ve never tried before, too. The two epics are massive, but only at the end – they both start with extended vocal-and-keyboards sections, in which you can hear every inflection in the voice. “Arn Batur,” notable for packing in 90 musicians for its orchestral finale, is almost entirely naked for six of its nine minutes. And the back half of the album is made up of slow, sad pieces with as few instruments as possible backing them up.

The shift is remarkable. Rather than sounding otherworldly beautiful on this album, Sigur Ros now sounds merely worldly beautiful. There’s no denying the pop thrill of a song like opener “Gobbledigook,” with its stereo-panned acoustic guitars and flowing melody. There’s also no denying how spare and pretty an acoustic lament like “Illgresi” is, although with such a focus on Birgisson’s voice, I suddenly (and for the first time) find myself wondering what he’s singing about.

The final track clues me in – it’s the biggest surprise here, the first ever Sigur Ros song in English. It’s as if the last curtain finally comes up, and here is the band letting its American fans in completely. The result isn’t anything special, unfortunately – it’s called “All Alright,” which already commits a sin against the language, and its best verse goes something like this: “I’m sitting with you, sitting in silence, listening to bird-hymns, like home, singing in tune together, a psalm for no one…”

But there’s something oddly unnerving about listening to Sigur Ros perform in English. The song itself is a sparse piano ballad, the vocals wafting on top of plunked chords, so there’s no mistaking the lyrics for Icelandic. And I find I miss not knowing what Birgisson is thinking. I miss the idea that this is a band we’ll never fully understand. This new insight is fascinating, and the songs on this album are fragile and lovely, but the effect is almost a grounding of what was once a free flying soul.

That’s not to say this album is a dud. Far, far from it. In fact, it contains some of the most beautiful musical passages of the year so far, especially the breathtaking “Inni Mer Syngur Vitleysingur” and the stunning “Festival.” That’s the song with the classic Sigur Ros crescendo – it starts with nothing, and builds to a monolith. But when Sigur Ros wants to be sweet and uncomplicated, they do it very well – observe the string of songs leading up to “All Alright,” almost a suite of emptiness.

There’s nothing really wrong with Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust. In fact, there’s a lot very right with it. But it’s undoubtedly a turning point, the album on which the set dressing is folded up, the wooden chairs are trundled out and the folksy, fireside stage of this band’s career begins. It’s fascinating to hear them simply make pretty sounds, but on this album, they’ve given us sounds a hundred other bands are making. For the first time, Sigur Ros sounds like a band from Earth, speaking our language, and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, I can’t help thinking something’s been lost in translation.

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I listen to a lot of music, but you’d be surprised just how much of that music comes from artists I’ve liked for years. On my top 10 list right now, you’ll find Aimee Mann, Joe Jackson, Counting Crows and R.E.M., all acts I have loved for 10 years or more. Believe me, I’ve noticed this pattern myself, so this year I decided to do something about it.

I’ve been buying and trying more new bands in 2008 than I ever have. The secret, I found, is to get over the idea that I’m going to be into every single band in my collection for the rest of my life. If I buy a debut album and I don’t like it, there’s no shame in just not buying the second album. Not every band has to have a 30-year career, as much as I’d like that. Some may burn brightly for a moment, some may not at all. But it’s worth trying them out, and enjoying (or not) that one album while it’s here.

My fervent hope when I started this new philosophy was that I’d find something captivating, astounding, amazing – something that I may not have heard under normal circumstances. And now I have. The band is Fleet Foxes, and you’ll find their self-titled debut occupying the number one spot in the list below.

Who the hell are Fleet Foxes? The most obvious answer is they’re a five-piece band from Seattle, led by a songwriter named Robin Pecknold. They describe their music as “baroque harmonic pop jams,” which tells you absolutely nothing. The best I’ve been able to come up with is this: imagine Brian Wilson’s 18th Century English folk band. But even that doesn’t do it. Who the hell are Fleet Foxes? It’s a complicated question.

Here’s what I can tell you: every second of their self-titled album is beautiful. Their sound is based on centuries-old folk, but it includes elements of sun-splashed California pop, ‘70s acoustic rock, and the harmonies of bands like The Mamas and the Papas. Every song here could have been written in the 1700s, lyrics notwithstanding, but the sound draws in bits from the last four decades. Pecknold’s voice is clean and clear, strong and gentle, and when the rest of the band orbits him in harmony, the vocals lift this record off the ground.

Take any song. Let’s pick “Quiet Houses,” track four. Over a thumping drum beat, Pecknold and his band spin a web of clean guitars, then layer a five-part harmony vocal over the whole thing. Then they break it down halfway through into something that sounds like a demo from SMiLE. The entire lyrics for the song are as follows: “Lay me down, don’t give in, come to me, lay me down.” It sounds astonishingly simple, but the result is simply astonishing.

Brian Wilson himself could not have written a better melody than the one that graces “He Doesn’t Know Why,” a gem of a pop song with some glorious “ah-ah-ah” harmonies. “Heard Them Stirring” has a particularly baroque base, harpsichords and harmonies accented by tympanis. There are no lyrics to speak of, but the wordless vocals and dazzling guitar fill your ear to bursting. And I doubt I will hear a more beautiful song this year than “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song,” although “Your Protector” gives it a run for its money.

When you finish Fleet Foxes, you will want more, particularly because final track “Oliver James” ends abruptly. Fear not, because the band released an EP earlier this year called Sun Giant. Oddly, this little morsel was written and recorded after the album, so these are the five newest Fleet Foxes songs. It’s a good sign, then, that my favorites reside here: the ever-expanding “Drops in the River” and the singalong “Mykonos.” You can’t go wrong with either the album or the EP, and you really can’t go wrong with both.

Many musicians work overtime, trying every trick in the book to craft timeless music. The results are usually over-cooked and half-baked, sounding desperately of their time. But Robin Pecknold and Fleet Foxes have succeeded – their sound is almost out of time, respectful of a hundred traditions at once. It is older than the ages, it is newborn and blinking its eyes in the sun. Who the hell are Fleet Foxes? They are the discovery of the year, and they have made the best album of 2008 so far. And even if they never make another record, I will treasure this moment, this time.

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Here, now, is the real 2008 Second Quarter Report. It features the same 10 albums I posted last week, but this time there are little numbers next to each of them. These numbers represent my preferences right now, and may be different tomorrow or next week. I am, as I said before, still sorting through my impressions of Coldplay, Death Cab and Sigur Ros. As always, your mileage may vary, but here’s what the top 10 list would look like were I forced at gunpoint to post it right now:

10. Joe Jackson, Rain.
9. R.E.M., Accelerate.
8. Death Cab for Cutie, Narrow Stairs.
7. Counting Crows, Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings.
6. Sigur Ros, Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endlaust.
5. Coldplay, Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends.
4. Vampire Weekend.
3. The Feeling, Join With Us.
2. Aimee Mann, @#%&*! Smilers.
1. Fleet Foxes.

Thank you for your kind attention. Please read my Seventy Sevens review, if you haven’t already. Next week, in addition to what I said at the end of the other 7/2/08 column, I may whip out a couple of Doctor Who reviews. (Snap! You thought I forgot, didn’t you?)

See you in line Tuesday morning.