Melody Gardot, "The Absence" (Verve)
An alternate title for "The Absence," the Philadelphia singer's spellbinding third studio album, might be "Wanderlust," so immersed is it in the cultures of Portugal, Argentina and Brazil, places she visited in a protracted journey of musical discovery. The varying textures of songs, mostly written in English and Portuguese with some French and Spanish, are so fluid and finely tuned to the senses that listening to a song like "Lisboa" is like strolling through the city's side streets captivated by the sounds of church bells and children at play while inhaling its exotic scents.
Without quite settling into a particular style, the music embraces Portuguese fado, tango and light samba in acoustic guitar arrangements as Gardot reflects on the vicissitudes of love. There is happiness, as in the lilting "Mira." And there is deep sadness, as in "So We Meet Again My Heartache."
"Impossible Love" acknowledges that even the flame of passion cannot burn brightly for very long. "If I Tell You I Love You" is the warning of a femme fatale not to believe her endearments. In the bitterly accusatory "Goodbye," the CD's closest thing to a blues, she growls her contempt for a lover she regards as a naive fool.
"The Absence" is an album of seductive, mysterious atmospheres conjured by a pop-jazz singer whose audacity, raw talent and intense feeling recall the young Rickie Lee Jones, even though the two have little in common beyond a fierce individuality.
STEPHEN HOLDEN, NEW YORK TIMES
Sigur Ros, "Valtari" (XL)
When the Icelandic experimental band Sigur Ros first emerged in the late '90s, its records felt like worlds unto themselves. Regal strings and brass, guitar noise, percussive bombast and Jonsi Birgisson's now-iconic coo: It all added up to a sound so huge and ethereal that few other bands felt capable of matching it.
Now that anyone with a laptop can make decently epic soundscapes, how will Sigur Ros keep its lead? On "Valtari," it does it by using all its usual tricks, but in even more evocative and expert ways. The band dipped a toe into sunnier pop vibes on 2008's album and Jonsi's 2010 solo album, "Go." But on "Valtari" it's back to the essentials: oceanic buildups, flickers of treated orchestras and falsetto vocal lines that yank heartstrings.
The lead single "Eg Anda" winds some Velvet Underground-y mangled guitar into gale-force ambience; "Var" crescendos into a quarter-note pummel of stacked noise. But on the whole, "Valtari" is pretty dazed and ephemeral. None of it's too far afield from what you'd expect from Sigur Ros at this point in a long career. But when the mood calls for "emotionally devastating long-form ambient maximalism," there's no need to ever go elsewhere.
AUGUST BROWN, LOS ANGELES TIMES