Beyond Playlist: Sigur Rós and More

Sigur Rós Hvarf/Heim (XL Recordings)

In some ways, the new Sigur Rós CD isn’t all that new. Hvarf/Heim conflates a pair of EPs, with the first consisting of three previously unreleased tracks plus reworkings of two early numbers and the second spotlighting six live acoustic renderings of numbers familiar to fans of these idiosyncratic Icelanders. Yet the combined impact of the recordings is considerable, making the disc a worthy addition to the act’s discography. The first three cuts are uniformly striking – especially “Í Gær,” an exercise in dynamics that features childlike chimes, keening vocals, a moody melody and epic guitar that brings the song to near-celestial heights. The reimagining of “Hafsol,” originally on the group’s first album, is just as effecting, creating the sort of widescreen effect capable of conjuring a National Geographic special’s worth of outdoor imagery. As for the Heim material, it’s necessarily lower key. Nonetheless, ditties such as the beautifully fragile “Vaka” exert a fascination of their own, even though only onetime residents of Reykjavik will have the slightest notion what lead singer Jonsi Birgisson is going on about. When it comes to Sigur Rós, fortunately, sounds create their own meanings. -- Michael Roberts

Various artists Music From the Motion Picture Control (Warner Bros./Rhino) Joy Division Unknown Pleasures: Collector’s Edition Joy Division Closer: Collector’s Edition Joy Division Still: Collector’s Edition (London/Rhino)

Control, the Ian Curtis biopic directed by Anton Corbijn, is about two-thirds of a fine film, with its principal debit being a third act that fetishes Curtis’ 1980 suicide to a degree that only those obsessive fans who’ve hanged themselves in his honor have exceeded. Highpoints include performance sequences in which members of the cast, including Sam Riley, who makes for an appropriately moody and enigmatic Curtis, actually perform the music made infamous by the singer’s band, Joy Division, rather than going the easier (and generally less interesting) lip-synching route. Even so, the Control soundtrack includes only one example of the actors’ work: a convincing version of “Transmission.” Otherwise, the disc mingles a handful of Joy Division staples (“Dead Souls,” “Atmosphere” and, of course, “Love Will Tear Us Apart”) with some appropriate offerings from the band that emerged from JD’s ashes, New Order (specifically “Exit,” “Hypnosis” and “Get Out”), a smattering of period ditties from the Velvet Underground, Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Roxy Music and Kraftwerk, an inoffensive updating of “Shadowplay” by the Killers, and some dialogue snippets of the sort that have been de rigueur since the Pulp Fiction CD. The result is a compromise, albeit a consistently listenable one. The platter doesn’t entirely succeed at putting Joy Division in the context of its era; the group rose during the punk period, yet only one example of the genre (a messy “Boredom” courtesy of the Buzzcocks) is included. Happily, though, all the music is strong, which makes up for a multitude of sins.

Of course, the commercial prospects of a film about a British cult figure who’s been moldering for a quarter-century plus aren’t great in this country. But that hasn’t stopped a pair of domestic record labels from putting out deluxe variations on three Joy Division originals in an attempt to cash in on a windfall that will probably never happen – and the packages more than justify their existence. Still always featured live material, but now both Unknown Pleasures and Closer sport companion discs culled from shows, too, with the former capturing a July 1979 gig and the latter commemorating a February 1980 performance. None of the concert CDs is marked but spectacular fidelity, yet they vividly convey the time and place, as well as the emotional component of the outfit’s work that’s still palpable all these years later. This same sensation comes through on the studio discs. Closer remains the act’s strongest album, but all of the recordings cohere well and seem remarkably undated for an obvious reason: The band’s signature sound – so dark, so daring, so danceable – is in frequent use to this very day. Whereas many of the selections on the Control soundtrack seem like period pieces, the Joy Division tracks could have been recorded yesterday, or tomorrow. That’s a more important reason for the continuing fascination with Curtis than his final rope burn will ever be. -- Roberts

Steve Earle Washington Square Serenade (New West)

Washington Square Serenade commemorates Earle’s move from Nashville to NYC. This eastward shift inspires a series of self-conscious musical tweaks, the most obvious of which is the choice of John King, an erstwhile Dust Brother, as the album’s producer. On the surface, this match seems workable: After all, the Brothers’ collaboration with quasi-folkie Beck on Odelay represented a ‘90s high-water mark. In this case, however, the boom-chicka-boom that underpins “Satellite Radio” seems misbegotten – an unnecessary attempt to update Earle’s sound via accoutrements that are so ten years ago. Other experiments falter, too, including a collaboration with the Brazilian combo Forro In the Dark on “City of Immigrants.” The composition has its moments, but the arrangement, which suggests an outtake from one of Paul Simon’s excursions into ethnography, weakens a message Earle expresses more memorably and succinctly in a liner-notes postscript (“Fuck Lou Dobbs,” he writes). Of course, even minor Steve Earle is worthy of notice, and a few tunes here work particularly well, including “Days Aren’t Long Enough,” a winning duet with Allison Moorer, whom he married a couple of years back. But the disc as a whole feels a bit forced and inauthentic – two descriptors that have seldom been used in connection with this hard-bitten American troubadour. -- Roberts

Time of Orchids Namesake Caution (Cuneiform Records)

Formed in New York City circa the late ‘90s, Time of Orchids is a four-piece with a knack for finding the strangeness in beauty, and vice versa. Keyboardist Chuck Stem and guitarist Eric Fitzgerald sing in a slightly atonal manner, giving their harmonies a subversive texture that perfectly complements compositions ranging from “Windswept Spectacle,” a psychedelic excursion that ratchets up the drama before concluding in near cacophony, to “Parade of Seasons,” which is filled with twisted, blues-derived string torturing and eccentric rhythms navigated with skill by drummer Dave Bodie and bassist Jess Krakow. Most observers will dub the amalgam prog, and “We Speak in Shards,” an opus that encompasses minimalism, maximalism and everything in between over the course of ten minutes, largely fits the bill – except for the segment just over a third of the way through featuring hand claps and hooky crooning that wouldn’t sound out of place on a classic-pop album. Although “caution” is part of the CD’s title, it’s not indicative of the band’s methodology, and thank goodness. -- Roberts

Merle Haggard The Original Outlaw (Time Life)

When an artist’s been around for a few decades, fans looking for a comprehensive overview of his or her work often have the luxury of choosing among multiple collections – and that’s the case with Haggard, who’s already been the subject of an excellent 1996 box set dubbed Down Every Road. But that doesn’t mean The Original Outlaw, a new release, is entirely superfluous. Road is longer – four CDs versus three – and generally features more selections per disc. In addition, the earlier comp digs deeper into Hag’s wondrous early years, when his tenor was light and tangy and his material hit peak after peak. However, The Original Outlaw’s third disc contains a bunch of material from the ‘80s that doesn’t appear on its predecessor – and although most of Haggard’s contemporaries spent the lion’s share of that decade sucking owing to the drecky production then in favor, stuff like 1988’s “Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star,” his last country number one, and “A Place to Fall Apart,” a mid-‘80s duet with Janie Fricke, actually hold up fairly well. On top of that, programmers have included a smattering of post-millennial work such as “Wishing All These Old Things Were New,” from his 2000 disc for Anti-, an Epitaph sister label, and 2005’s “America First,” an unexpected get-out-of-Iraq manifesto whose key couplet declares, “There are things to be done all over the world/But let’s rebuild America first.” When judged as a whole, Outlaw falls short of essential, but it’s not the retread it seems at first blush. -- Roberts

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts