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Singing in Tongues

By Tina Plottel | Posted 11/20/2002

Sigur Rós

Lincoln Theatre, Washington, Nov. 4


When Sigur Rós performed at Washington's Lincoln Theatre, it brought the sold-out crowd into its magical world, one where music matters more than any words that may describe it. Language becomes secondary with this band, opting for verbal elusiveness on its latest record, the simply titled ( ). Its songs are sans titles, forcing fans to come up with their own lexicon to describe them. But who cares so long as it sounds good?

Clearly, the band cares about its musical notes infinitely more than its liner notes. And it can deliver a silvery, perfect set that captures the Tolkien-ness of the Icelandic atmosphere. Multi-instrumentalist Kjartan Sveinsson played keyboard chords that evoke a lush landscape and cold, dry air, his notes rendering the image of a crisp blue sky that expands over vast green foliage. His diaphanous guitar sounded like sweeping wind, and when he threw in a flute, it added subtle depth to the whole arrangement. Vocalist Jon Thor Birgisson's unique style is smooth and silky, although at times a bit castrato, his voice piercing enough to raise hairs on your skin. He sings in his own language, à la Elizabeth Fraser of Cocteau Twins, and his lithe, lanky body occupied center stage as the band's awkward leader. He looked humble and seemed shy, but the ease with which he sang fake words in his falsetto belied a slight cockiness. It was embedded in his confidently shy posture, suggesting that the whole time he was thinking, I'm so beautiful, it hurts to look at me.

The set was typical of Sigur Rós' music--slow, symphonic, and ethereal, with an air that turns any movement into slow motion. It's a beautiful effect, especially when the lights swirled and made snowflake patterns on the Lincoln's ceiling. It makes for a long evening, however, and even though Sigur Rós has three albums' worth of material, the two-hour concert featured only 12 songs--nearly 10 minutes per song, a bit trying for even the most fanatic attention spans. The songs from 1999's Agaetis Byrjun generated the most response, particularly "Olsen Olsen" and "Svefn-g-englar," along with a segment featuring a string quartet. Fans who have been around since Ros' 1997 debut, Von, however, may have recognized "Hafssol," a song that came out before the band perfected its droning signature sound. It is in the process of being reworked (featuring bassist Georg Holm playing bass with a drumstick) for a live album to be recorded during this tour, and it's a perfect example of how the band is embracing its persona as strange Icelandic export, yet tweaking its music to make it a bit more commercially friendly.

That may be a difficult hurdle. Sigur Rós' songs are incredibly consistent without being too similar, and unique without being homogenous. While they tend to sound the same, there's enough of a difference within the intricacies of the melodies to sustain interest. On the surface, Sigur Rós doesn't sound like it's offering anything that hasn't been part of the whole indie-rock formula which pop bands have explored over the past 10 years. But it takes that formula apart and puts it back together in a way that's unlike anything heard before.

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