The best sequels stand on their own, in story lines and aesthetics. So it is with the Swell Season's 2009 album, Strict Joy. Although Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová can't completely erase the burnished, cinéma vérité romance of their NPRgasm-inducing Once soundtrack, the duo sounds more like a partnership with staying power on Joy — even as it evokes lovers doomed to embrace only in a song. With more consistent material and richer arrangements, the album finds Hansard mastering dynamics, building songs to heartbreaking climaxes and settling into resignation, while Irglová's occasional lead vocals walk a tightrope between determination and frailty. Who needs a day-to-day relationship (the two are no longer a romantic item) when your harmonies and melodies feel realer than real life?