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Album Review: J贸nsi – Go Live

With Sigur Ros on a bit of a break while most of the members spend time with family and the like, angelic-voiced frontman J贸nsi decided to work on some other music and art related projects. First came J贸nsi and Alex, an extremely sparse music and art project he did with his boyfriend Alex Somers. The album “Riceboy Sleeps” was a quiet collection of ethereal instrumentals that was recorded using entirely acoustic instruments. That was followed by a genuine solo album, “Go”, which was released this past spring. “Go” was probably the better of the two albums, even though both definitely had their individual merits. Neither could quite live up to most of what Sigur Ros has done, but that’s an incredibly high standard to live up to. One of the flat-out great things about J贸nsi’s solo work was that he felt the need to make every live performance a special experience for the audience. He worked closely with 59 Productions to craft an elaborate stage setup with costumes and other visual pieces such as animation and video to accompany most every song. It made J贸nsi one of the best live acts to see in the last year, and if you missed it, you’re basically screwed unless you live in Japan or Iceland which are where his last two solo shows will be taking place this month. Personally, I tried pretty hard to make it out to one of the three dates J贸nsi played in Chicago this past spring and fall, but unfortunately just never quite got there. The good news is that this week saw the release of “Go Live” – a CD/DVD package that gives you all that J贸nsi audio AND visual goodness you either missed or just want to see/hear again.

First, the “Go Live” DVD is worth the purchase price alone. It was filmed at J贸nsi’s very first solo live show on the “Go” tour, back in London in March. He and his backing band play eleven songs, a couple of which are unreleased, in the sense that they didn’t appear on the original “Go” album. No Sigur Ros songs or J贸nsi and Alex songs (even though Alex is part of his solo tour backing band), just J贸nsi solo stuff. Adding the visual element to these songs in this particular case actually serves to enhance them from their original states, really just taking art to the “next level”. Between flowers growing, birds soaring through the air and rain pouring down in sheets, it’s a visual feast for the eyes that feels as inspired by J贸nsi as J贸nsi surely was by it. There’s a distinct lack of highlights on the DVD, mostly because the entire live show as a whole can be considered a higlight. As a teaser though, outside of a trailer a lot of the focus has been on a wonderfully extended version of “Around Us” that makes all the right moves. Eleven songs and 73 minutes is more than fair for a DVD such as this one, but that doesn’t quite compare with the 14 tracks and 75 minutes of the CD that comes with it.

Lacking the visual stimuli but packing a nearly equal punch, the audio-only portion of “Go Live” was pulled from a show in Belgium back in May and a few tracks also come from a Brighton, England show this past September. Given that the studio version of “Go” only spans 9 tracks and this CD is 14, that means 5 new songs you might not have heard before. Granted, tracks like “Stars in Still Water” and “Icicle Sleeves” were pretty much played at every solo show J贸nsi did, and “Sticks + Stones” appeared on the “How to Train Your Dragon” soundtrack, but in all likelihood you haven’t heard every single one of these tracks. Just to have high quality recorded versions of the unreleased stuff is worth it, and all the songs are so damn good you’ve got to wonder why the unreleased stuff didn’t make the original album. Another great thing about J贸nsi live in general is that the crowds are more than respectful. Plenty of live records are marred by too much audience interaction or singing along and things of that nature, but outside of little bits of applause before and after a handful of tracks, most everything is silent as night. It leaves the CD in pristine audio quality to the point where it sounds like a studio recording, only a little more insistent and playful. The DVD fares equally well audio-wise, though the visual element takes some attention away from that. Things to pay close attention to on the “Go Live” CD include a harrowing 7-minute rendition of “Tornado”, another equally great 8 minutes of “Around Us”, plus the new/unreleased songs. Naturally though, J贸nsi likes to save the best for last, which is why a 10+ minute version of “Grow Till Tall” ends both the CD and DVD. It’s the sort of thing that makes you wonder why it’s only 5 minutes on the original album.

The majority of live CDs and DVDs are not worth your hard-earned money. Any artist can put 5 cameras in a concert venue, perform a straight show and then release it. There’s no real need to be interesting, provided it sounds good enough. There also seems to be a casual approach to crowd noise, as some artists feel it necessary to prove a “connection” to the audience or are just sloppy when it comes to editing that out. Those crying fans singing along with your every word? Let’s put that on the DVD because our fans are passionate. J贸nsi’s fans are every bit as passionate and every bit as connected (if not moreso) than any other artist, but “Go Live” doesn’t play those cards except for very conservatively. The people responsible for putting this package together fully recognize that this show is an artistic expression akin to a play or a painting in an art gallery. You don’t boorishly yell things out in the middle of a play, nor do you rub your greasy hands all over a Picasso. You look but don’t touch. You listen and don’t interrupt. Throw in unique renditions of songs you already know and a handful of new stuff, and an already worth it package becomes a must-own. “Go Live” is better than the studio version of “Go”. The songs retain their beauty but flourish beyond that into something triumphant and even more exciting when heard, and the visual side from the DVD half deepens the art in a different way. Released just in time for the holidays, the “Go Live” package is makes for a wonderful gift for that J贸nsi/Sigur Ros fan in your life.

Buy “Go Live” from J贸nsi’s website
Buy it from Amazon

Live Friday: 5-7-10

Your liking of Sigur Ros and singer Jonsi’s side project don’t have to be exclusive to one or the other, and in fact it probably behooves you to like both. I was a slight bit timid in my review of Jonsi’s first solo effort “Go” a few weeks back, but my beef is that compared to his main band Sigur Ros, it wasn’t as good. In reality though, how could you expect it to be? Still, with a group of collaborators that included his boyfriend Alex Somers and avant-garde composer Nico Muhly, “Go” is one solid effort, even if it doesn’t eclipse his other stuff. Now in terms of a live show, Jonsi has pulled out all the stops for his current American tour. There’s a heavy theatrical element and a stage design that’s second to none. The photos and online video I’ve seen of both are nothing short of impressive. I would have and should have gone to see Jonsi when he stopped by Chicago for a pair of shows last month, but unfortunately I fell ill for a few days and decided against going. Hopefully there will be a next time. For those, like me, who are/were unable to see the Jonsi concert experience, this Live Friday should give you an idea of how good it is. In fact, for you collectors out there, this session from Minnesota Public Radio actually includes a performance of an unreleased song. Yes, Jonsi prefaces the song “Stars in Stillwater” by saying that he wrote it 10-15 years ago, and went so far as to record it for “Go”, but felt that it wasn’t good enough to include on the album. It is, in fact, pretty good. You also get the song “Go Do” performed with just a baritone ukelele, and “Around Us” on solo piano. To sum up, it’s a great session and most definitely worth downloading if that’s your sort of thing.

There’s also the streaming interview portion (link below) which, if you paid any attention to the “masters of awkward silence” interview Sigur Ros did with NPR a couple years back, had the potential to be equally as strange. Thankfully, Jonsi is very talkative and open about all sorts of topics. He discusses why he chose to release a solo album now, the Icelandic volcano situation, and his love of strawberry pies. Pretty good actually.

Jonsi, Live on MPR 3-24-10:
Jonsi – Stars in Stillwater (Live on MPR) (Unreleased song!)
Jonsi – Go Do (Live on MPR)
Jonsi – Around Us (Live on MPR)

Stream the entire interview/performance

Buy “Go” from Amazon

Album Review: Jonsi – Go [XL]

The solo debut from Sigur Ros frontman Jonsi Birgisson came out last week, and though I had every intention of reviewing it then, after the half dozen listens I usually give records before forming opinions about them, I was still struggling to gather my thoughts. Living up to the powerful legacy that Sigur Ros set for themselves can be tough, especially when you’re on your own (just ask Jonsi’s OTHER side project with his boyfriend Alex Somers, titled Jonsi & Alex aka Riceboy Sleeps), and determining whether Jonsi’s new solo album “Go” is worthy of that high bar is really what kept me up at night. Of course the common element among all these things is the vocal performance of Jonsi himself, whose angelic singing pretty much requires bits of beautiful instrumentals to create cohesion and inspire. To help out with such a task on this “solo” effort (in name only), he recruited famed indie composer Nico Muhly to arrange many of the tracks, which of course benefits the record greatly. Jonsi’s boyfriend Alex also played on most of the songs on “Go,” and multi-instrumentalist Samuli Kosminen added strings and woodwinds and guitars and all sorts of digital production work to get this thing sounding unique. And the album does manage to ultimately separate itself from the other Sigur Ros material, but not so much that it feels uncomfortable or even like a mild betrayal of what we’ve come to know Jonsi for in the first place.

Perhaps the main difference between Sigur Ros and Jonsi’s “Go” is the overall tone. Whereas Sigur Ros tends to focus on the ethereal quietly beautiful moments, drenching them in an instrumental haze that tends to be tonally all over the map, Jonsi by comparison goes straight for the jugular with a triumphant, upbeat pop sound. Sigur Ros likes to do 6 minutes of slow burn builds into an explosive triumph of epic proportions, and Jonsi holds down a frantic tempo and prefers a verse-chorus-verse song structure that wraps up in under 5 minutes (most of the time). Really a lot of what you need to know about this Jonsi album can be deciphered just by a careful analysis of the cover art. You get a sketched black and white picture of Jonsi, dressed in a military-esque garb, with a rainbow of colors spraying off his shoulder and neck. How fitting then that many of the songs on “Go” sound like they could be military anthems for battles in some imaginary world with imaginary characters, while at the same time maintaining a radiant joy that can’t help but fill your heart with hope and general positivity. Not that past Sigur Ros albums haven’t been, but listening to this Jonsi record is, on all accounts, a delight that makes it difficult to criticize.

If I do have any problems with “Go,” and in some respects I suppose I do, it’s mainly rooted in the overall lack of emotional heft it conveys. Sure, there are a couple ballads in “Kolindur” and closer “Hengilas,” but outside of those darker, heavier moments, the record can feel a little TOO lighthearted and poppy. It’s like the difference between eating a rice cake and actual cake for a meal. The light and airy nature of the rice cake may be far healthier for you, but it doesn’t do much to fill you up in the end…and it lacks a little flavor. It feels like a weak meal because essentially it is. Cake, on the other hand, may be bad for your health, but a decent sized piece will fill you up and send you on the inevitable sugar high before you crash. For many of these songs, Jonsi goes the rice cake route, and without something heavier in the diet, you’ll finish and be left still hungry for something more substantial. The couple ballads add that extra heaviness to the record, and so they’re beneficial, but it’s just a little sad there aren’t at least one or two more of them – especially considering the amazing things Jonsi tends to do with them. Aside from that, I also am finding an issue with Jonsi’s decision to sing most of the songs on “Go” in English, which is the first time he’s really done something like that for an extended period. With all those Sigur Ros records, I fell in love with the band more because I couldn’t understand what was being said and Jonsi’s vocals served their purpose as just another instrument rather than actual words coming out of somebody’s mouth. Now that I can grasp the concepts and ideas that Jonsi is providing on his solo album, not only is some of the mystery gone, but I find my focus taken away from the overall instrumental compositions and instead focused on what’s being said. In other words, Jonsi singing in English is distracting to me much of the time, and it’s made it harder for me to get into this album as a result.

Between the three projects that Jonsi Birgisson is now involved with, I’d say that his latest *official* solo record ranks second best. While I did enjoy the Jonsi & Alex record from last year, its extended moments of quiet instrumentals just lacked a certain energy or structure. And of course Sigur Ros continues to hold my main attention for the time being, even if they are on a break while “everyone has babies”. Jonsi’s new album “Go” doesn’t quite snare me as much as almost any other Sigur Ros record, but that doesn’t mean it’s worse than them either. As a momentary distraction, or even a project to explore his lighter, poppier side, Jonsi and his friends do an excellent job crafting this album, and if this sounds like your sort of thing, you’d be wise to get yourself a copy. This especially goes for anybody who heard Sigur Ros and felt they were too heavy-handed or moody in the first place – you might find new things to like via the Jonsi record. Should the “brief hiatus” that Sigur Ros are currently on extend for some reason into forever, at least we can take some comfort that Jonsi will keep making good albums to help fill that potential void.

Jonsi- Boy Lilikoi (YSI)

Buy “Go” from Amazon

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