Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová are the charming duo who starred in the 2006 (!?) romantic musical "Once" and now perform together as "The Swell Season." Strict Joy is their second album together, and it's a marked improvement over the first, which was mostly the soundtrack from the movie.
The first album was notable for the raw, raging quality of Hansard's vocals, which tended to overpower Irglová's more delicate performances. That over-the-top quality derived from Hansard's roots as a street singer (as portrayed in the film) who had to rely on extended vocal histrionics to hold the attention of passersby. In fact, the vocals on that first album can be grating; after you've gotten past the novelty of hearing the songs from the movie again (like Falling Slowly), the album is difficult to listen to. My wife put it on in the car the other day and as soon as I heard the first notes I was, like, "urgh… not that one again…"
But this album is going to hold up to multiple listenings. Hansard seems to have matured as a singer; Where he unleashed great fury in the first album, on this one he holds back, content now to let the power of the songs surge from other sources while he plumbs his own vocals for a different kind of depth. The effect is most notable on The Rain and High Horse, where pulsing, multi-layered instrumentation provides a firm bedding on both Hansard and Irglová weave their intricate, contrasting harmonies.
This new album was featured a couple of weeks ago on NPR, and offered in its entirety, and it looks like you can still listen to it there. However, now the album is in release, and you can listen to it the first time for free via Lala.com or drop a buck and listen to it all you want. I'd say it's a buck well spent.
There is also a "Deluxe Edition" of Strict Joy that contains more than thirty tracks; it looks from the listing like some of them are live versions of songs from the movie and the first album. I haven't listened to that one yet, but you can get the "web album" at Lala for a whole $2.79.