Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Top 5 Albums of 2009: #3

Jónsi & Alex
Riceboy Sleeps

The Jónsi and Alex of the so aptly named "Jónsi & Alex" are Sigur Rós' lead singer Jón Þór Birgisson and his boyfriend Alex Somers, who has done most of the artwork for the band, so it should come as no surprise that the duo's first album together, Riceboy Sleeps, sounds something like the Icelandic post-rock band. But after Sigur Rós released their surprisingly poppy Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust last year, I wasn't sure where I could expect Jónsi & Alex to pick up in conceptual trajectory of Jón's über-famous band. Was this something new that he wanted to take further on his own? Would it be that sort of new, upbeat sound that the band had ventured into on their last release? Or would it be closer to the lush orchestral sounds that put them on soundtracks for The Life Aquatic  and Vanilla Sky?

If either, it was the latter that rings true with Riceboy Sleeps definitely taking a scenic route through ambient harmonies reminiscent of Sigur Rós' earlier recordings. But to call this a return to the days of Ágætis byrjun would be just plain inaccurate. Von, perhaps would be a more likely comparison, but Riceboy Sleeps is a whole and complete, extremely satisfying listen, and Von comes off sort of disjointed, a little scary, and frankly, kinda bad. Like a forgotten Godspeed! You Black Emperor project--and forgotten for good reason. If you actually like Von, I'll have to send you a case of PBR or something, because you've got way more hipster points than the rest of us.

As much as the sounds here do hearken to Jónsi's primary project (hell, every post-rock band hearkens to Jónsi's primary project at this point; you can't not--they are one of the absolute finest bands recording and touring today), they are far more closely related to ambient artists like Xela or Secede. This is an experimental album for certain, and perhaps not all fans of Sigur Rós will find this to their liking. Where a Sigur Rós song might start off quiet and build its way into a dreamy wall of epic stringed orchestration, these songs are more prone to just wander, satisfied to loll about under the muted sun that hangs amidst Iceland's perpetually grey and misty skies. Throw into the mix old friend Amiina (the string quartet who records and often tours with Sigur Rós, and whose own album Kurr is an absolute pleasure) and the Kópavogsdætur Choir, and you've got quite an interesting disc on your hands.

"All the Big Trees" and "Daníell in the Sea," the seamless sixth and seventh tracks on the album, are a perfect example of what Riceboy Sleeps represents. They sound like they could have been torn directly from Secede's Bye Bye Gridlock Traffic, if not for the delicate, ethereal melodies Jónsi and Alex hide beneath the blurring ambiance instead of stutter-step electronic beats. These songs don't have anywhere to go--they're just living in the moment, and it is so unbelievably satisfying to just live there with them. There is no need to crescendo into a smashing blast of distortion, cello bows drawn over tweaked out guitars and hammering drums pounding into oblivion; nor is there a drive to swoop in with ten-thousand strings and produce a tear-jerking moment that Michael Bay will want to pick up for his next celluloid abomination.

That's the best part about Jónsi and Alex: they're just happy to be who they are. Musically, and personally. I mean, have you seen them? A six-foot-tall, half-blind introverted Icelander and his tiny little American boyfriend whose bowl-cut hairdo helps him look roughly thirteen years old. I mean, I absolutely love and respect the guys, but if they're not comfortable with themselves in every single way by now, they've got bigger issues to work out than how many atmospheric flowing-water-sound overdubs they want to put on track nine. Correct answer, incidentally: approximately one billion.

Jónsi & Alex - Happiness

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