Getting Louder
Hanson and Sigur Ros Crank Things Up

So, what did you do this week?

Oh, me? I just hung out with a $30 million, 50-foot-wide electromagnet and watched as trained professionals moved it down a major Long Island street, loaded it onto a barge and sent it out to sea. No big deal.

The magnet is the centerpiece of one of our experiments at Fermilab, and since it would cost that $30 million to build another one, we’re shipping this one, which was built at Brookhaven National Laboratory in the 1990s. We’re sending it on a 3,200-mile land and sea journey that will cost 10 times less. It will also look amazing as it rolls through the streets of Illinois in late July.

If you’re interested in following the ring’s journey, you can do so here. And if you want to see what it looks like, check out the videos here. Yes, I saw this in person. No, it’s not a spaceship. Yes, my job is pretty cool.

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So here’s something interesting for you to ponder: Hanson is an indie band.

It’s been 16 years since their out-of-nowhere cuddly-pop hit “Mmm-Bop.” It’s been 13 years since their last major-label album, This Time Around. And the Hanson brothers, God bless them, just keep on doing what they do. They own their own label, 3 Car Garage, and they produce their own records. They handle their own touring and marketing, steering every ship in their fleet. They’ve just released their eighth record, Anthem, and it’s another step in a musical evolution not beholden to hits or trends. Hanson just does what they do.

For a while now, they’ve done it under the radar, slowly evolving into a pretty slick pop combo. Their last album, 2010’s Shout It Out, was their best, incorporating elements of Motown and Stax-Volt soul while keeping the focus on Taylor Hanson’s top-notch voice and piano. Shout It Out brought the band some much-deserved attention, and for many, it was their first indication in years that the Hanson brothers were still playing together. While fans saw it as a gradual evolution, latecomers were stunned by the huge leap in quality.

Anthem doesn’t quite push them forward as far, but for the most part it’s still a nice leap from Shout It Out. The star of this album is Isaac Hanson’s guitar – this is by far the loudest, most rock-oriented Hanson album. In fact, the first four tracks represent the most ass-kicking opening shot of their career. “Fired Up” begins things with a ‘70s rock feel, a nimble time-jumping riff and a sweet solo from Isaac. “I’ve Got Soul” brings in the horns for a surprisingly complex riff and a catchy hook, “You Can’t Stop Us” feels like funky Lenny Kravitz, and single “Get the Girl Back” is just boatloads of old-school, horn-drenched soul.

If, by this point, you are not up and dancing, an idiot grin on your face, then Hanson may not be the band for you. Their brand of pop has nothing on its mind but fun, and if you’re looking for piercing lyrics, you need to look elsewhere. They drop Shakespeare references throughout the marvelous, Beatlesque “Juliet,” but they’re the obvious ones: “Through your window breaks the rising sun, by any other name you’d still be beautiful…” I can’t bring myself to care, though, because the song – all glorious harmonies and tricky piano melodies – is just great.

Anthem’s second half smoothes things out a bit too much. “Already Home” is pleasant enough, with a strong ascending chorus, but the limp “For Your Love” is the record’s first real stumble. From there, it’s a stretch of songs that don’t quite pack the punch of the early numbers. “Lost Without You” has that Diane Warren sheen (thankfully, she had nothing to do with it), while “Cut Right Through Me” tries to make the most of its simple riff, but finds it wanting. The band still sounds muscular, but the songs take a few steps back.

Hanson rights the ship with “Tragic Symphony,” one of their finest tracks. A quick-stepping guitar shuffle augmented by slippery strings, this song explodes into a chorus worthy of Michael Jackson in his heyday. This attitude is exactly what the previous four tracks were missing, and it’s like the sun breaking through the clouds. This is what Hanson should be doing, not mediocre pop songs like “Lost Without You.” Final songs “Tonight” and “Save Me From Myself” put the spotlight back on Taylor’s piano and the horns. Anthem ends well, but it’s a shame about the sag in the middle.

For that reason, I can’t say this album is better than Shout It Out, even though it pushes Hanson in some interesting new directions. Isaac truly steps up here, handling many of the lead vocals and cranking up his amps, and the band is all the better for his contributions. Songs like “I’ve Got Soul” and “Tragic Symphony” point the way forward – soulful, explosive rock with super-catchy melodies. When they stick to what they do best, Hanson smacks down all their naysayers. When Anthem is on, as it is most of the time, it’s loud, catchy and fun. I hope the next one has a better batting average, but this one’s pretty damn good. If you’ve forgotten they exist, Anthem will be a pleasant surprise.

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A few months ago, I saw Sigur Ros live for the first time. A few months from now, I will see them live again. I don’t know if it’s possible to repeat one of the best musical experiences of my life, but I’m gonna try.

For 16 years, this Icelandic collective has been pulling off a fascinating trick – they’ve constantly morphed and changed, but they have never sounded like anyone except themselves. Part of that is in their basic makeup. It’s hard to overstate how singular Jonsi Birgisson’s voice is, and the band’s calling card has always been lush, otherworldly arrangements, like movie soundtracks from another galaxy. But over their last three albums, they’ve embraced cheery pop, spare balladry and ambient expanses of sound, and through it all, they’ve remained identifiably Sigur Ros.

Their seventh full-length album, Kveikur, accomplishes the same feat, sending the band spiraling in a new, more intense direction while somehow retaining its core. That’s even more impressive when you realize that this is Sigur Ros’ first album as a trio – keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson departed last year. They haven’t stripped down to accommodate their smaller size, though. If anything, they’ve bulked up – Kveikur is one of the loudest, most fascinatingly abrasive albums the band has made, on par with the second half of the parentheses album at times.

Leadoff track “Brennisteinn” throws down a gauntlet – it’s almost sludge-metal, plodding through a snowdrift universe with 50-ton boots. It’s one of the most bone-crushing experiences Sigur Ros has given us, and if the rest of the album can’t quite match up, it’s because the band chooses beauty more often than you’d expect. “Hrafntinna” soars on strings and horns, caressing the bed of jarring percussion and atonal shifting sand beneath it. “Isjaki” is practically a pop song, its chiming clean guitar lines leading into a chorus that could fit on the radio, were it not sung in Icelandic. And yet, there’s still something off, something alien about it – the almost dissonant strings, perhaps.

Kveikur is a remarkably concise 48 minutes, and even when you want it to sprawl, it doesn’t. “Yfirbord” utilizes the Kid A vocal effect, creating a foreboding landscape, but it’s over in 4:19. Even the six-minute title track, which sounds like Sigur Ros’ idea of a Black Sabbath song, doesn’t waste a moment, getting right to the memorable vocal melody and ushering us into that freefall of a chorus. It’s the opposite of their last record, the expansive Valtari, and yet it doesn’t feel truncated. Only the closer, “Var,” feels cut off before its time.

And there are moments of breathtaking wonder here, hiding among the murk. “Rafstramur” stands proudly next to anything on Takk, still the band’s most joyful work, and the grand “Blapradur” elevates its gentle guitar figure into a soaring, arms-raised masterwork. The band played this one live at the show I saw, and it was magnificent – thousands of people transported, riding the waves as they crested and broke. Sigur Ros is trying on new clothes here, working in new areas, but they still possess their very particular magic. The aggressive Kveikur is a departure in some ways, but a reaffirming in others. They’re evolving, but they’re still like no other band on earth.

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So it’s time for the Second Quarter Report. This is what my top 10 list would look like if I were forced to release it now. It’s been a fairly depressing second quarter, not adding a whole lot to the first quarter list aside from a sparking new number one. Here’s what it looks like:

#10. Justin Timberlake, The 20/20 Experience.
#9. Little Green Cars, Absolute Zero.
#8. Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City.
#7. Sigur Ros, Kveikur.
#6. Laura Mvula, Sing to the Moon.
#5. My Bloody Valentine, m b v.
#4. The Joy Formidable, Wolf’s Law.
#3. Everything Everything, Arc.
#2. Frightened Rabbit, Pedestrian Verse.
#1. Daft Punk, Random Access Memories.

And with that, we’re halfway through the year. I hope the second half picks up steam. I’ll be using the next couple weeks to catch up on some things, including that amazing Laura Mvula album sitting at number six. I’m still absorbing the new Daniel Amos, which was emailed out to Kickstarter supporters last week, so that may end up with a slot. Janelle Monae’s new album sounds like it will be fantastic. Beyond that, who can tell?

Also this week, the great Texas enigma Jandek released his new album, The Song of Morgan. It’s a 9-CD box set of piano works, apparently. I doubt anything the man ever does will end up on my list, but I’m always fascinated by the directions he chooses to go. More on that in the coming weeks, most likely.

And I’m off to the new AudioFeed Festival next weekend, so perhaps some thoughts on that. So many options. You have to come back next week now and see which one I pick. Leave a comment on my blog at Follow me on Facebook and Twitter to stay up to date.

See you in line Tuesday morning.