Björk – “Björk”

When most people think of Björk the think of the Sugarcubes and probably the infamous swan dress.  Her solo work certainly has a strong and varied fan base, though I’m not sure how many of them have ever listened to her pre-Sugarcubes projects like KUKL and Tappi Tíkarrass.  But she was putting out music even before that.  All the way back to 1977.  When she was all of 11 years old.

Björk is probably the most expensive record I own.  I get uncomfortable when talking about the price of records one you get outside the typical new release prices, which today seem to have somehow snuck in to the $25-30 range.  I’ve tried to resist my collecting nature when it comes to records, with varying degrees of success – I rarely buy something on vinyl if I already have the CD or mp3, and if I can find a re-release for way cheaper than an original I’ll usually go that route.  But when I saw that Lucky Records had a copy of Björk for sale, I kind of knew I was going to bite the bullet.  Which is weird, because I’m far from a Björk super-fan and, after all, this is a record recorded by a 12 year old girl.  But there is something simply compelling about her – her look, the sound of her voice, the projects she takes on.  I’m pretty much convinced she is a genius and she herself may be circumstantial evidence of other planes of existence that most of us just can’t seem to tap into.

So Ingvar and I worked out a deal, and I brought home an original copy of Björk.  There have been a number of re-releases and bootlegs over the year, and even those command some decent prices, so maybe I’m breaking my own rule here.  But let’s be honest.  They aren’t really “rules”… just sort of “guidelines.”  It’s not like I have to answer to anyone other than myself when I break them.  Holly is more likely to roll her eyes at my self-torment and the process of trying to convince myself it’s OK to buy something like this than she is to even give a second thought to the purchase itself.  Because I’m neurotic in this way, and she knows it.  She’s been watching it happen for a long time.

But back to Björk.  I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting here.  Maybe some type of transcendent experience.  But actually this record sounds like pretty much what you’d expect a 1977 album by a talented 11 year old girl.  Look, today all the studio bells and whistles can make a kid sound like the most perfect pitched mature singer you’ve ever heard.  But this was recorded in 1977.  Björk sounds like a kid.  Because, in fact, she was a kid.  It’s apparent she has a strong singing voice, but overall the music has a slightly jazzy, slightly funky, slightly eastern feel to it, and her vocals, which are up in the mix and obviously the focal point, aren’t overly produced are modulated.  She had a very clean and clear voice, but we don’t yet get hints of the uniqueness she would exhibit later with an approach that often mixed signing and screaming and had a unique, signature sound.

Björk includes both originals and covers, most notable an Icelandic version of The Beatles’ “Fool On The Hill,” which may be the one place where I can hear her start to push her voice.  It also features a fair amount of flute, which I believe was her primary instrument.  It may be the most interesting track on the record, the one which started to hint at what was to come.  But of course that’s all easy to say 35 years after the fact.

Björk is an interesting first step in a long, successful, and innovative career, and as such it attains a certain level of importance.  But in reality it’s not an album I’m likely to play over and over again, so if you’re interested in just the music, look for one of the less expensive re-releases or CD versions.

Iceland Airwaves 2013 – Day 2 (“…and a cassette”)

For the first time during Airwaves 2013 I’m writing with most of my brain working – not hallucinating from lack of sleep on our travel day nor at 2:30 AM after a complete day of concerts.  So hopefully I’m more coherent, because if not I’ve got real problems.

We went over to Lucky Records today to pay for and pick up all the stuff that I’ve had on hold, and even I was surprised at the volume, which is what happens when you ask to have  a few things put aside, but spread out those requests over the course of weeks.  That being said, I was stoked about what I had waiting for me, both the stuff I picked out as well as a few nuggets Gestur and Ingvar put aside, like a super limited edition múm picture disc, a couple of 45s, some random CDs, and yes, my dear readers, even a cassette.  Let that last part sink in for a minute.  This wasn’t a vintage cassette like the Snarl II compilation I wrote about recently.  Oh no.  This is brand spanking new industrial insanity dual effort from Iceland’s own AMFJ and Auxpan, and I’m looking forward to checking it out… assuming, of course, I still have a tape player floating around in my garage somewhere.  Either that or I’ll have to sit in my wife’s car.

I have a stack of cool stuff to listen to when I get home, including new material from The Samúel Jón Samúelsson Big Band and Emilíana Torrini, plus used stuff by Björk, Purrkur Pillnikk, and some almost completely unknown Icelandic bands (well, at least unknown to anyone not from Iceland!).  As near as I can tell I got about 27 records and 21 CDs (and one cassette!) so far… and frankly I don’t have room for much more – though I still need to hit up the flea market on Saturday.  I can’t wait to get home and start listening!  I’m not as much looking forward to cleaning all these records and having to reorganize my shelves… but that’s the price you pay.

We weren’t too inspired by the off-venue program today, but we had one band we wanted to catch – the industrial duo known as Ghostigital.  Not too many bands can be as intense and weird as Ghostigital while still being awesome.  This marked the fifth time we’ve seen them at Airwaves and as usual they did not disappoint, this time playing a small stage on the top floor of Reykjavik’s opera house Harpa, with the setting sun coming in through the angular windows on two sides and a crowd who was ready to get after it.  And they brought it.  There were a couple of songs from their latest album, Division of Culture and Tourism, plus a few I didn’t recognize.  The small crowd (maybe 75 people?) was way into it and some people were seriously rocking out.  This moved solidly into second place in my personal list of best shows this year, behind only Legend.  We also caught part of Good Moon Deer’s set, some nice experimental electronic played by one guy on the controls and the other on the drums.

[BREAK…]

OK, while earlier I told you how amazing this post was going to be because I wasn’t sleep deprived… well… it’s now about 2 AM and we just got back from our second night of shows, so bear with me.

We spent most of the evening back at Harpa catching heavy metal and punk type shows.  Momentum opened with their brand of psych metal, though it wore on me a bit as there wasn’t a lot that differentiated the songs in their set.  Dimma, however, looked, acted, and sounded like rock stars, like metal gods from the bygone age of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal.  The lead singer knew how to strike the poses and flat out hit the notes all the way through.  These guys are a new favorite, and I’ll be looking for some of their stuff before we leave.  Endless Dark followed with their own brand of quasi post-hardcore, a relatively large band with not one by two vocalists – though to be fair one was more a shouter/growler and the other a singer.  Regardless, they were hard, fast, and awesome.  Muck was next, and we saw them live when we were last in Reykjavik back in April.  Some decent punk, but while I didn’t think it was anything terribly special, they probably had the largest crowd in that room tonight.  Sólstafir was the band we really came to see, and while they were good their sound was a bit droning, sort of Icelandic cowboys (based on how they were dressed) singing like old Alice in Chains.  Their style is a difficult one to pin down – I think their music takes a conscious effort to truly appreciate.  A lot of people are way into them, and I feel like this is the kind of band I should totally love, but I just don’t quite get them.  We snuck out of there a bit early to head over to another room within Harpa to listen to a few songs by Yo La Tengo, who were decent in a kind of folk rock way.

After that it was off to the waffle truck for some amazing waffles before taking a chance and strolling to Dolly Bar downtown to see if our friend Ingvar, aka DJ Lucky, was still spinning his Afro-beat dance set there.  We’d only found out about this earlier in the evening, but we were able to catch the last 10 minutes or so in a packed sweat-box full of dancers, drinkers, and people snorting unknown substances.  At one point I saw a guy in a police uniform walking through and thought some folks were going to get busted, but Holly pointed out that his shirt was unbuttoned pretty much down to his pants, so… probably off duty?  Tough to say.

Oh yeah, and we saw the northern lights tonight just up the street from our apartment.  So check that one off the list of things to see.

God I need some sleep…

Björk Guðmundsdóttir & tríó Guðmundar Ingólfssonar – “Gling-Gló”

It’s funny that given my borderline and continually growing obsessiveness over Icelandic music that I’ve never written a post exclusively devoted to Björk.  I’ve discussed her albums with Tappi Tikarrass, Bítið Fast Í Vítið and Miranda, and noted that I got to stand next to her at the Shabazz Palaces show during Iceland Airwaves last year (without, unfortunately, realizing it was her until Holly told me – doh!).  And that’s not going to change today.  Today is about jazz, and her one-off project with the tríó Guðmundar Ingólfssonar on an album called Gling-Gló (Icelandic for “ding dong”, or the sound a ringing bell makes) in 1990.

Recorded in just two days, Gling-Gló‘s 16 tracks include both songs in Icelandic and English, though I have to confess that when I hear Björk sing I get completely lost in her voice and the way she uses it, so there were some songs I didn’t even realize were in English until they were almost over.  She’s classically trained and experienced in jazz, which adds to her ability to impact this kind of album.  I don’t think that Björk has one of the truly great, pure singing voices.  Instead what she has is a deep relationship with music and unique sound and range that allows her to do really unusual things vocally, things way outside the norm but that seem to work perfectly with the music she’s working with.  And that, to me, is the key to her true genius, and it shows on this album.

I don’t have the original Icelandic recording of this, but fortunately it’s been re-released a few times on vinyl, including most recently a two record (45 rpm) limited edition of 1,000 put out by One Little Indian in 2008, which I got on eBay for a decent price.  It’s also available on CD and iTunes, and if you like jazz or you’re just looking for something a little different to play around the house while you’re relaxing, I give Gling-Gló two thumbs up.

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.

Tappi Tíkarrass – “Miranda”

Formed in 1981, Tappi Tíkarrass is perhaps best well know (by people who’ve even heard of them at all) as rock trivia, because their 15-year-old female lead singer later went on to be pretty famous in the music world.  You may have heard of her.  Her name is Björk, and she’s arguably the most well-known export to ever come out of Iceland, along with wool sweaters, banking collapse, and Brennivín.

“Tappi Tíkarrass” literally translates to “cork the bitch’s ass,” and if that wasn’t pretty punk rock for 1979 I don’t know what is.  Björk actually replaced the band’s original lead singer, Eyþór Arnalds, though Arnalds’ vocals still appear on two tracks on Miranda.  Released in 1983, Miranda was the band’s only full-length release, following on the heels of 1982s Bítið Fast í Vítið EP and the popularity gained by the band and their captivating lead singer from the contemporary Icelandic music documentary Rokk í Reykjavík (which generated an amazing double album soundtrack… but more on that on another day).  Both Tappi Tíkarrass albums were on my want list when I went to Reykjavik last November, and I found this copy at, of all places, the city flea market.  It wasn’t cheap, but I thought I got a decent price since the record was in nice shape and the insert was still inside.  It’s probably the most expensive single record in my collection, and it’s a legitimate rarity with only around 1,500 copies produced.  I’ve seen it sell online in the $125-175 range (I got mine for a little bit less), and even the out-of-print bootleg CDs command a decent price.

Right now you might be thinking to yourself, “why is this important?  I don’t even like Björk.”  And that’s a reasonable question.  It took me a long time to kinda-sorta get on the Björk train, and I’d hardly say that I like all her stuff.  That being said, having listened to more of her early music with bands like Tappi Tíkarrass, KUKL, and The Sugarcubes, I’ve come to the conclusion that she is both advanced (using the Jason Hartley Advanced vs. Overt criteria) and a musical genius.  Which doesn’t mean I like everything she does.  Hell, I don’t even understand Biophilia… but that kind of proves my point.  I don’t think she’s crazy.  I think she just operates on a totally different wavelength than the rest of us.

But back to Miranda.  This album is a great showcase for Björk’s singing, with her amazing range and ability to convey tremendous emotion that is clear even though the vocals are in Icelandic.  Even without knowing the words, there’s a lot of power in this music. While the band’s EP was more punk than their LP that came out just a year later, Miranda remains a punk album (with tinges of new wave for flavor) in that it seems to break all the rules about how popular music at the time should sound.  It’s hard to wrap your head around.  It’s certainly more melodic and structured than what their contemporaries in Þeyr were putting out, and less straight ahead punk than Purrkur Pillnikk, but frankly blows past both of them into new, more approachable territory.  The band broke up the same year Mirnada was released, with Björk joining members of Purrkur Pillnikk and Þeyr (interesting that all three bands imploded around the same time) to form KUKL, a difficult-to-like band that put out two disjointed, challenging albums before fracturing and spinning off some members to form The Sugarcubes.

There isn’t much point in going through this song by song – I can’t understand the words anyway.  Miranda is an album that begs to be listened to from start to finish, allowing you to follow Björk on the adventure she wants to take you on.  Unfortunately it’s a tough one to track down.  That being said, it’s one of the few albums in that price range I’ve ever heard that I’d say is worth the price strictly for the music that’s on it.  Björk sings as beautifully on this album as anyone I’ve ever heard, and with a strong band behind her she’s that much more impressive.