SIGUR ROS "Hvarf/Heim" (XL) 3 ½ stars
ANGELS & AIRWAVES "I-Empire" (Geffen) 2 ½ stars
Two bands take vastly different approaches in swinging hard for faraway fences on their new albums.
Sigur Ros is from Iceland, but its music is anything but glacial. Angels & Airwaves are punk/emo kids who have moved onto loftier and nobler missions. One succeeds, emphatically; the other merely passes, discreetly.
A listener with a more discriminating ear might draw distinctions between Sigur Ros' "Hvarf/Heim" and its predecessors. For me, it's more of the same, which is all good and is what you'd expect from an Icelandic band that calls its Web site "eighteen seconds before sunrise": celestial, operatic anthems that sound expressed from a place beyond heaven.
This work comprises two CDs. The first is "Hvarf," a collection of three unreleased (and in at least one case, unrecorded) tracks, plus gorgeous and overhauled versions of two cuts from "Von," the first album: "Hafssol" and the title track.
The second disc, "Heim," is even more familiar and for good reason. It comprises live acoustic versions of six songs pulled from the band's four studio albums, including "Agaetis Byrjun," which, according to the label, wasn't performed live, ever, until this summer.
Even the new techniques and treatments are familiar and, at times, heart-wrenchingly emotional: thunderous crescendos, dramatic climaxes and rushes of tranquillity, quietude and resolution - music that blurs the distinction between sorrow and joy. Those are sounds and traits we've heard before, either vaguely or directly, from the likes of Radiohead, U2, Genesis when Gabriel and Hackett were still in it, Gabriel solo, Pink Floyd, even a bit of Enya and Coldplay.
But if you've seen this band's astounding live show, you know full well there's nothing old-school or New Age about Sigur Ros, a band that's of a time, place and beauty all its own.
Like Sigur Ros, Angels & Airwaves aims for the sky. Its methods, however, are more modest, predictable and earth bound; consequently its results are more immaterial.
Tom DeLonge (formerly of snotty punks Blink-182) is now enthralled with epic synth-rock anthems, the kind of redemptive, chin-up, bigger-than-a-yacht songs that made U2 a viable stadium band. DeLonge has Bono's ambition, but not his Irish soul. He also suffers a songwriter's most ignoble weakness: redundancy - both lyrically and musically.
So although they engage and entertain on their way through the brain matter (especially those with the Edge riffs), the 12 tracks on "I-Empire" tend to leave behind little aroma and the slightest aftertaste.
"I'M NOT THERE" SOUNDTRACK (Columbia) 3 stars
"CONTROL" SOUNDTRACK (Warner/Rhino) 2 ½ stars
Two new film soundtracks are in stores, and each is worth a good listen. Here's the skinny on both:
"I'm Not There" is a biopic about Bob Dylan, and an array of actors - and an actress, Cate Blanchett - portray the protagonist.
The soundtrack is equally eclectic. Over the course of two discs, a roster of diverse singers and bands delivers takes on 34 Dylan tracks, including several lesser-known songs and tracks from his later albums, such as "Cold Iron Bound" and "Ring Them Bells."
As much as it is a soundtrack, "There" is also a tribute album, and like most tribute albums, it suffers some missteps and flaws. However, considering its length and ambition, "There" has remarkably few of those and lots of treatments and experiments that work.
Among my favorite moments: Willie Nelson singing "Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)" with Calexico behind him; Sonic Youth's astral-folk take on the title track; Jim James (My Morning Jacket) stepping in front of Calexico for a bittersweet version of "Going to Acapulco"; Stephen Malkmus' roadhouse-blues take on "Maggie's Farm"; and Mark Lanegan's folk-noir presentation of "Man in the Long Black Coat."
Calexico shows up on several tracks. So does the ersatz house band the Million Dollar Bashers, who comprise Steve Shelley and Lee Ranaldo (Sonic Youth), Dylan's longtime bassist Tony Garner, John Medeski, Tom Verlaine, Smokey Hormel and Nels Cline (Wilco). They back up Eddie Vedder on a fuss-free version of "All Along the Watchtower," Karen O on a shambling rendition of "Highway 61 Revisited" and Malkmus on "Maggie's Farm."
Like Vedder, several others (Cat Power) pay homage to the man by leaving his songs alone and playing them relatively safe and straight. Those don't measure up to the originals, but they're worth a listen anyway - like nearly every track here. When you're handling Dylan's music, you have to go out of your way to mess things up.
"Control," meanwhile, is a biopic on Joy Division's Ian Curtis and was directed by Anton Corbijn, best-known for photographing album covers for U2.
A Joy Division devotee, Corbijn writes in the liner notes that the soundtrack was assembled to celebrate the band and its inspirations. So amid four JD cuts plus New Order's instrumental "Exit," and some dialogue from the movie, the listener gets tracks from Velvet Underground, Bowie, Iggy Pop, the Buzzcocks and Kraftwerk.
The mix isn't revelatory, but it does fill in blanks and connect dots that led to a brief career that still resonates. One of the Bowie songs, for example, is "Warszawa," which gave the band one of its early names, Warsaw.