Tappi Tíkarrass – “Bítið Fast Í Vítið”

Whenever someone hears that I’ve been to Iceland, invariably I get the same two questions immediately.

1.  What possessed you to want to go there?
2.  Have you ever met Björk?

The first one is generally easy to answer with the usual descriptions of the amazing scenery, friendly people, and how safe and easy to navigate Reykjavik is.  Until last fall the answer to the second question was no.  But after Airwaves 2012 it’s now a no with an asterisk.  Since then I’ve been able to say truthfully that I’ve stood next to Björk at a concert, but we’ve never been formally introduced.  That being said, it’s a small city – so running into her somewhere on a future trip is hardly out of the question.

I wrote about Björk’s early band Tappi Tíkarrass in a review of its only LP Mirnada, and also touched on them HERE and HERE.  Suffice it to say that the band was formed when Björk was only around 16 or 17 and had just graduated from music school.  She’d already gained some fame in her homeland, but Tappi Tíkarrass gave her the opportunity to break free of classical and cultural music to move into the evolving world of punk-new wave in the early 1980s.

Tappi Tíkarrass released their five song EP debut Bítið Fast Í Vítið (translated as Bite Hard Into Hell, which seems a bit extreme until you consider that the band’s name actually means “Cork the Bitch’s Ass” (I kid you not)) in 1982.  Clocking in at under 13 minutes, it’s quick and to the point, and the point is punk… though to be fair, I think its a bit closer to the new wave side of the punk-new wave continuum.

 

Björk’s singing on Bítið Fast Í Vítið is actually pretty conventional for the era and genre.  We only catch a few fleeting glimpses of the sound that she later cultivated and made her own.  There isn’t any of the screaming or massive pitch changes that later came to define her style, and in fact I think she tried to keep her voice relatively low here.  And I’ll let you in on a secret:  It works.  She has a beautiful voice, and I have no doubt she could have been massively successful with mainstream pop songs had she chosen that route.  Fortunately for us she didn’t, and her body of work speaks to an artist evolving over time, and I think all of us are the better for it.  There are lots of great female pop voices.  There’s only one Björk.

Bítið Fast Í Vítið is gritty, early new wave, and 30 years later it still sounds great to my ears.  The band is solid and Björk’s voice forces you to pay attention, especially on “London,” the opening track of side B, on which she does a little growling early on to grab you.

I generally don’t talk about the price of the records I write about here, but I will say that Bítið Fast Í Vítið is probably the most valuable one on my shelves… I certainly paid more for it than any of the others.  Does that matter?  Not really.  It’s still just a record.  But a pretty great one, I have to admit.

Björn Thoroddsen – “Svif”

This was another of my recent Reykjavik flea market finds, and one I bought based on the cover alone.  My guess was that Björn Thoroddsen was some kind of 1970s rock guitarist… maybe an unsung Icelandic Jimmy Paige or Peter Frampton.  Close.  He’s a jazz-funk guitarist, and 1982’s Svif  (Glide in English) was his first solo album.

Holly’s out of town this week, so I grabbed this from my stack of as-yet-unplayed records from the trip and put it on the turntable while I went in to clean the kitchen.  I know that she wants to hear a number of the albums that we haven’t gotten to yet, so with this mystery selection I figured I’d test the waters and save her from it if it sucked.

Jazz guitar isn’t really my thing (but to be clear, it doesn’t suck).  It’s apparent that Björn was and presumably still is a very talented guitarist, and it certainly didn’t drive me to lift the needle before I played the entire thing all the way through.  I could actually see me spinning this from time to time in the right circumstances… maybe a dinner party or something like that.  Or while I clean the kitchen. It’s good kitchen cleaning music.

Rúnar Þór Pétursson – “Auga í vegg”

OK, this was an impulse buy.

We’ve all been there before.  You’re crate digging, a cover gets your attention for a moment but you move on… but you can’t get that cover out of your head, so you go back for another look.  Normally this is where I’d take out my phone and do a quick search of the web to see what I can find out about the artist, but this time I was in Reykjavik’s downtown flea market, so no internet access.  All I had to go by was the album.  I could tell it was released in 1985, which is sort of in my musical wheelhouse, and I had 1,000 Krona burning a hole in my pocket (about $8.50), so I figured what the hell.

I couldn’t find out much about Rúnar or this album online, other than that the one and only Bubbi Morthens actually sings the title track (sometimes I wonder if there was a single album released in Iceland in the 1980s that Bubbi Morthens wasn’t somehow involved in), so I went into my first listen cold.  Google Translate tells me that Auga í vegg means “Eye Wall,” and while there’s a big store sign with an eyeball on it in the upper left of the cover photo, I’m guessing something is lost in translation (Google Translate is a valuable tool, but does provide some unintentional comedy).  I’m not sure how to describe the album’s style, but it’s a bit dark and sort of late-new-wave-as-it-moved-back-into-rock-ish.  I can’t get over the feeling that this sounds like a Don Henley album, but I have no idea why.  And that’s neither praise nor criticism because I’m basically totally ambivalent about Don Henley.  The song Bubbi sings seems like it doesn’t quite fit, sounding a bit more bluesy than the rest of the tracks, but whatever.

There’s nothing on Auga í vegg that grabs me or differentiates it from about a million other OK albums out there.  It’s decent and if it was playing in the background I doubt your friends would even pay enough attention to realize it the vocals aren’t in English.  But I still think the cover is cool, and if for no other reason than that I’m glad I picked it up.

Sesar A – “Stormurinn Á Eftir Logninu”

Sesar A’s Stormurinn Á Eftir Logninu is generally regarded as the first hip hop album with all the vocals in Icelandic.

Right now you’re probably thinking one of two things:

1.  They have hip hop artists in Iceland? and…
2.  So what?

Yes indeed, Iceland has it’s own hip hop scene.  Having spent some time strolling around Reykjavik, I can confirm that some parts are better than others… though the “mean streets of Reykjavik” don’t even remotely resemble those of Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, or other American urban centers that originated hip hop music and culture.  That being said, while I admit my exposure to Icelandic hip hop is limited, what I’ve heard tends to share the themes prevalent in much of its American counterparts – partying, chicks, cars, and talking about how bad ass you are.  The fashions are similar and the CD cover photos wouldn’t seem out of place at your local record store in the States.  When we saw XXX Rottweiler Hundar (seriously) at Airwaves in 2009 it was a straight up hip hop show, with the MCs drinking out of fifths of Havana Club rum and driving the relatively young crowd into a frenzy.

The second question is a bit of a philosophical one I suppose, and I may end up wildly off base here.  A lot of Icelandic musicians sing in English, and the same is true of popular artists in any number of non-English speaking countries.  One obvious advantage, especially if your native language is Icelandic, is that it broadens your potential market by oh, I don’t know, literally hundreds of millions if not billions of people.  That may not be the only reason though (as if that isn’t enough).  I’ve read and heard a number of interviews with artists who indicate they find it easier to write songs in English than in their native languages, be it for the rhyming options English offers or for other reasons.  So to me Sesar A’s move to take hip hop out of it’s American box and giving up all the free rhymes he could have potentially “borrowed” from English recordings to rap in Icelandic is significant (the phrase “fuck you” appears at least once on the album, but that’s not grounds for disqualification IMO).  He took hip hop and said, “This is ours too.”  To me this seems like a bold statement.  He took it a step further with the impressionist style portrait of himself that appears on the cover of Stormurinn Á Eftir Logninu (The Storm in the Wake of the Calm), which is very, very un-hip hop.

The music on Stormurinn Á Eftir Logninu is unquestionably hip hop – I don’t need to be able to understand the words to tell that.  There is some heavy sampling here, both in the beats and snipits of other songs, some recognizable ones like those from Jackson 5 and Queen, but also some jazzy ones that make much of the album sound like it’s the soundtrack for a 1930s era Chicago gangster movie.  That sort of jazz pacing and sound appears throughout the album, and overlaying Sesar A’s deep voice on that music creates a unique vibe.  A number of the tracks are instrumental versions songs that appear elsewhere on the album, making them solid dance club fodder and a good way to practice your rapping in Icelandic.

Even if you don’t speak Icelandic, this is a tight hip hop album and one that should be interesting to the hip hop fan who wants to see how other countries and cultures have developed the genre in their own ways.

Ólafur Arnalds – “For Now I Am Winter”

One of the items I was on the lookout for during Record Store Day was the limited edition (of 1,000) vinyl of Ólafur Arnalds’ 2013 release For Now I Am Winter.  I kinda figured this would be more of a European release since Arnalds is from Iceland, and when I didn’t see it at Easy Street or Silver Platters I wasn’t terribly surprised.  But Monday night while I was perusing the Easy Street website I was surprised to find they had one copy listed for sale as part of their RSD “left overs” and I knew I had to get it.  I debated driving over that night to pick it up, but given the time it would take and the cost of gas these days, paying the shipping and sales tax was a good economic decision.  Besides which it ensured I could have another cocktail that night after placing my order online, since there’s no rule against drinking and buying stuff on the internet, a fact for which many retailers and especially eBay are grateful.  A guy I know surfed eBay drunk one night and woke up to discover he’d bought a very used limousine.  True story.

The record arrived today and we put it on the turntable to give it a listen while we ate some ice cream.  We’d seen Arnalds live last year at Iceland Airwaves – people talk about him like he’s the Stephen Hawking of music over there, so we wanted to see what the fuss was all about.  Arnalds was on the piano, along with one electronics box, plus a violin player and a cellist.  After seeing the set I agree that Arnalds is insanely talented; and that many of his fans are unfortunately insanely pretentious, almost acting like those of us not already “in the know” about Ólafur were intruding on their private conclave.  But the violin player that night was absolutely amazing, and we were still glad to have seen Arnalds’ show.  Originally a punk rock drummer, over time he’s developed into sort of modern-minimalist-classicist.  Nice music to have on while you’re enjoying some ice cream after a hard day of work.

Holly and I both almost dropped out spoons at the same moment, when the first time a vocalist snuck out of the music about half way through side A.  Boy, that sure sounds a lot like Arnór Dan Arnársson from Agent Fresco, we agreed… and then it sounded even more like him… and lo and behold, the album credits “Arnór Dan” with the vocals, so it has to be him!  Which makes sense given that the two traveled to New York last week to do a couple of shows.  Wow – that got us listening a bit more attentively.  Arnór is crazy talented and, just as importantly, a really great guy, so it was cool to hear him on this.

As mentioned before, For Now I Am Winter is more or less a classical album – classical instruments for sure, though hardly orchestral in scope, and it’s actually very quiet and still.  Arnársson’s vocal sound flows in and out of a handful of songs almost like a unique instrument of its own, and my favorite song by far is “Old Skin” which features him prominently.  It’s great chill music, a worthy addition to anyone’s music library that will almost certainly warrant a play from time to time when the mood is quiet and relaxation is an imperative.  Regardless of the style(s) of music you primarily gravitate toward, you owe it to yourself to have a couple of high quality, soft albums like this on the shelf.