Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová’s first album as The Swell Season contained songs the Irish rocker and Czech chanteuse worked up for the 2006 movie Beauty In Trouble, and some of those songs were re-used for the indie-film hit Once, at which point Hansard and Irglová began to tour together, win awards, and rack up sales. So it’s fair to say that The Swell Season’s second proper album, Strict Joy, represents the first time the duo has entered a studio knowing that there’d be a sizable, receptive audience for whatever they came up with. Which probably explains why Strict Joy sounds so tentative at times.
The album-opening “Low Rising,” for example, struggles to move beneath its layers of horns, violin, and bluesy electric guitar. The song sounds like an attempt to please both the alt-rock crowd that loves Hansard’s more atmospheric band The Frames, and any Van Morrison/Eric Clapton fans who were moved by Once. Strict Joy relies too much on ballads derivative of other yearning, midtempo bands. There isn’t enough of an effort here to define The Swell Season as an entity.
But Hansard and Irglová are in fine voice throughout, and though the arrangements are decidedly busier than earlier Swell Season recordings, songs like “High Horses” and “The Verb” work to the duo’s strengths, winding delicate piano and guitar around punchy percussion, and building up and up, one sound and sentiment at a time. When Hansard and Irglová keep the arrangements simple, it’s easier to hear who they are.