Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Music to my ears

This is a book blog. I know that. But, as with the Red Sox, Google Buzz, and, yes, the Red Sox again, from time to time my entries have reflected a certain distractible sensibility. (This is a nice way of saying it’s hard for me to stay on point – one of many reasons I am relegated to Internet Siberia and not your local bookstore’s display windows.)

It really cannot be helped this time. And, showing signs of improvement, this one’s not about the Sox. No, I am devoting this post to fawning adulation. But first, the back story. For years now, I have been a fan of Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Rós. From the moment the first lilting twangs of “Njosnavelin” reached my ears in the movie Vanilla Sky, I knew I’d been hooked. Lead singer Jonsí’s (Jon Thor Birgisson) voice had an ethereal quality that is unmatched in music today. Soon I couldn’t get enough. As I began to discover more of their tracks, an entirely new universe unveiled itself before me. From the thumping rock anthem of “Glósóli” to the lighthearted giddiness of “Hoppipolla,” it was obvious the band had its pulse on a sound the rest of the world had yet to capture.

In a way, Sigur Rós changed my expectations of what good music should sound like. It most certainly raised the bar, but it wasn’t just that: Sigur Rós’ pieces – at times haunting, at times dreamy, but always unique – unfolded like a canvas, evoking an almost physical reaction, something previously unknown to my uncultured ears. (Keep in mind, my favorite song at the time was Nickelback’s “How You Remind Me.”) Although it took time, my love of Sigur Rós gradually led to appreciation of other bands who refused to be bound by the vagaries and expectations of pop culture. Most notable among these was Radiohead, whose leader Thom Yorke exhibited, albeit with more swaggering panache, the same spirit of musical rebellion embodied by Jonsí. (In what is perhaps the most compelling evidence against apocalyptic prophesies, the two bands once toured together without precipitating the universe’s explosion – somehow avoiding death by musical nirvana, so to speak.)

Fast forward to 2010. Jonsí had announced a world tour to promote his new album, Go. I purchased tickets for a New York show at Terminal 5 as soon as they went on sale. Last year, Jonsí had released an instrumental record, named Riceboy Sleeps, with his boyfriend; and embarrassingly, I didn’t realize until the concert this month that he’d compiled a new album since then. So imagine my surprise when Jonsí took to the stage and began performing “Hengilas,” “Animal Arithmetic,” “Tornado,” and the like.

I went home and immediately purchased the entire album on iTunes and have since listened to it incessantly. (My valiant college housemates can attest to my inability to diversify my playlist: when I discovered a new song, I would play it ad nauseum until, inevitably, even I grew sick of it.) But before I even get to that part, allow me to describe the concert itself. The set was designed to look like an old museum. Large panes of windows towered behind the band, on which projections of animals in the wild (the concert heavily utilized a nature motif) lent an epic quality to the accompanying music. I agree with the online commenter who stated that it felt like a film to which Jonsí was performing the accompanying soundtrack. The light show (and the entire production, for that matter) made it obvious that Jonsí intended to continue the creativity displayed at Sigur Rós’ live performances. (I had attended one of their concerts in Chicago in September 2008 and was equally impressed by the scale of the production.) In the most grandiose moment of the concert, house lightning bombarded the stage, then faded to a deer being chased by a wolf-like predator through dense forest, as Jonsí’s otherworldly falsetto rang out in “Kolnidur.”

Now, for the music itself: Go is a beautiful album. Because it is Jonsí’s voice on all the tracks, shades of Sigur Rós may initially sneak in, but the similarities are less real than imagined. Jonsí strikes out on his own path on this one, even if his musical decisions are clearly influenced by his prior works with the band. In arguably the best song on the album, “Hengilas,” Jonsí, singing in Icelandic and accompanied by an ominous ambient chord progression, evokes a deep melancholy. A repetitive piano theme in “Tornado” yields to booming percussion as Jonsí, soaring high above the melody, sings, “You flow through the inside/you kill everything through/you kill from the inside/you’ll, you’ll learn to know.”

The most well-known track on Go is “Boy Lilikoi.” Jonsí, in the chorus, urges his listeners to “use your life, the world goes and flutters by.” I’m trying, but his musical ingenuity has kept headphones glued to my ears. Flutter on, world.

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