The Sugarcubes – “Stick Around for Joy” (1991)

I have 170 records by Icelandic artists.  And that’s just on vinyl… it doesn’t even include tapes and CDs I’ve picked up.  And I’ve only been at it for maybe four years.  And yet, until last week, I had never purchased anything by The Sugarcubes.

How is this possible?  People joke that Björk is Iceland’s biggest export, yet there’s an element of truth to that, certainly from an American perspective.  Outside the Bobby Fischer / Boris Spassky match-up for the 1972 World Chess Championship and the 1986 Reagan / Gorbachev summit, which both took place in Reykjavik, most Americans were (and mostly still are) basically ignorant of Iceland.  And then The Sugarcubes happened.  And Björk happened. And now there are so many tourists going to Iceland that there are legitimate fears that all those people are actually damaging a surprisingly fragile ecosystem, one that Icelanders feel very connected to.

I like to think we fell in love with Iceland before there was a bandwagon.  It was more like a little shuttle bus with bald tires at that point.  But any time I mentioned the country, Björk and/or The Sugarcubes were invariably brought into the conversation.  So how did I manage to go this long without sitting down to listen to The Sugarcubes?  I’m not sure.  Maybe it’s an unconscious rebellion… sort of feeling like I couldn’t “discover” music that was already so well known?  After all, I’ve never listened to Sigur Rós either (no joke), and they’re probably the most popular Icelandic group among American music fans.  Hell, I haven’t even listened to either of Björk’s last two albums.

I suspect there is some truth to this.  I’m not intentionally ignoring these bands or albums, I just haven’t made even the remotest effort to listen to them.  And it’s not like we don’t have their music in the house, since Holly has had CDs by all of them for some time.  Simon Reynolds touches on these topics a bit in his fun book Retromania, and while it’s uncomfortable to feel like some type of ridiculous unconscious weaknesses and/or needs shapes my choices of what music to listen to, I have to be man enough to admit that it could be true.

sugarcubesstickaroundAnyway… I found this nice copy of The Sugarcubes’ last LP, 1991s Stick Around for Joy, the other day stuck in the 12″ singles section at a local store.  Given the price, my guess is someone mistook it for a 12″, and to be fair it kind of looks like one, including the jacket opening at the top instead of the right side.  And you know what?  It’s good.  It’s really good.  The musical sound is like an evolved version of new wave, sort of a  “free” new wave, much like free jazz, a poppy new wave sound that wanders around in a very loosely structured way.  Of course, we add to that Björk, with her oh so recognizable voice and vocal style that flows like water and won’t allow itself to be constrained by the music.  Thrown in a dash of Einar Örn weirdness, and you have a pop band that still sounds fresh today.  The only band I can compare them to is the B-52s, and I do hear a some similarities especially on “Vitamin.”

I’m glad I picked up Stick Around for Joy.  There’s some enjoyable, fun pop music here, and I can’t believe I wanted this long to check it out.  And since there’s still a little bit more space on my Icelandic vinyl shelf…

Bless – “Gums”

I’m not sure why I never got around to writing about this record before.  I’ve had it for a while – I think it was part of the first batch of records I ever bought from Reykjavik’s Lucky Records, back when they were crammed into their tiny original store.  My guess is I listened to it once and never got back to it.  I’m not sure what prompted me to put it on today, other than that I’d just been playing some Tappi Tíkarrass and so happened to be perusing my Icelandic vinyl shelf.  And much to my surprise, who’s voice did I hear coming out of my speakers on the very first song?  Björk’s.  Which was a surprise, because Bless was not one of her bands.

blessgums

In fact the front man of Bless is none other than Dr. Gunni, he of S.H. Draumur and a man who I’ve met and actually bought records from, and a number of his friends appear on Gums.  In addition to Björk contributing vocals to “Worlds Collapse” and “Yonder,” her Sugarcubes bandmate and current Ghostigital frontman Einar Örn playse some trumpet on “You Are My Radiator” and none other than Óttarr Proppé of HAM and Dr. Spock fame appears on “Spidergod” (as the Spidergod himself).  It’s a veritable collection of Icelandic all-stars from the period when it was released (1990).  The lyrical content is all over the place, and certainly a bit odd – song titles include “The Shovel Of Love,” (burying a girl in a sandbox…) “Night Of Cheese,” (eating cheese and a bad relationship) and “The Killfuckman,” (murder, and possibly cannibalism) so you know it’s going to be different.

Musically Gums is an interesting record that’s hard to genre-fy.  It’s rock… but it doesn’t neatly fit into any of the normal subgenres.  Maybe I should just describe it as “indie” and leave it at that.  If there’s one band that Gums reminds me of, it would be Half Japanese, but Bless are much more talented musicians and Gunni, even with his unique delivery, is a better singer than Jad Fair.  But there are some similarities, including the often bizarre lyrics.

I need to give this one a few more spins.  There’s a lot here to like.  Just watch out for the killfuckman, or he’ll get ya.

H3ÖH – “The Hafler Trio Bootleg”

I have to admit I haven’t been able to track down much info or get a lot of clarity on this release.  I bought it because it seems to have a connection to Einar Örn, the Icelandic musician know for his work as a member of Purrkur Pillnikk, KUKL, Sugarcubes, and Ghostigital.  As near as I can tell, it’s some remixes of material that Einar Örn and Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson recorded under the name Frostbite on an album called Second Coming, with Hafler Trio’s Andrew McKenzie joining the duo for the mixing.  

Here’s what I found on the label’s (Ash International) website:

Unnamed stars contribute to this Hafler Trio mix, recorded in Reykjavik,
Iceland.  Side b contains a rare example of Andrew McKenzie of

The Hafler Trio (H3O) on vocals.

There isn’t much here to go on.  I’ve never heard Second Coming, so I can’t speak to how these mixes compare to the originals… but of course now I feel like I need to track down a copy.  <sigh>  Such is the life of the music junkie.  Six degrees of separation.

h3oh

This was released in 1993 and consists of two songs:  “M.N.O. Gol’fish” (19:03) and “Mind Loss” (9:04).  Based on just the titles alone these look to correspond to the Frostbite songs “Goldfish” and “Lose My Mind,” but I can’t confirm that until I can track down that copy of Second Coming (Update –> found this on eBay and ordered it; I know you were worried).  The music is very much experimental electronica.  “M.N.O. Gol’fish” is a wide ranging affair, opening with some persistent drone sounds before evolving into something more traditionally electronic, but without the heavy bass beats.  When the percussion is outside the normal electronic beats, the sound is very aboriginal.  “Mind Loss” opens with more of a gothic industrial kind of feel before going more straight electronic.  The percussion still has a certain native something to it, but also includes some metallic sounds.  This is a bit faster paced than side A and the beats seem a bit more up in the mix.

I have the white label version, with the plain white jacket that features only a small sticker.  The image here appears to have been for the CD release – so if you find it in a plain package, rest assured you’re getting the real deal.  Some good electronica and well worth seeking out.

Purrkur Pillnikk – “Ehgji en”

Purrkur Pillnikk (translation:  Sleepy Chess Player.  Seriously) wasn’t the first punk band in Iceland, though they were certainly one of the most influential.  Two members went on to be part of The Sugarcubes, and Einar Orn also put in time with KUKL and most recently the industrial powerhouse Ghostigital.

Is Purrkur Pillnikk punk, or is it new wave?  Those were tough distinctions to make in 1981, probably nowhere more so than in Iceland, an isolated country with very limited access to music from the rest of the world.  Ehgji en sort of walks in the no-man’s-land between the two genres, and you can almost see the transition take place over the course of the album.  With 17 songs packed on the LP, what you get are short bursts of creative energy.  And while I don’t speak Icelandic, that doesn’t detract from the overall experience, with the vocal cadence acting almost as a completely separate instrument.  But then again, it means I can’t read the lyric sheet included inside the LP sleeve.  On pink paper.  Which is not very punk rock.  Does the use of pink paper in and of itself move this album to the new wave side of the line?  I don’t know.  But it is pretty.

I was fortunate enough to track down an copy of this on vinyl while in Reykjavik in 2011, coming across it at Lucky Records (thanks to my main-man Ingvar).  Unlike most early Icelandic bands, you can actually pick these guys up on iTunes, with a 44-song compilation of their complete catalog running you a pretty reasonable $19.99.  I mean, it doesn’t sound as awesome as it does on vinyl, with all the pops and crackles, but it’s a really great primer into the early Icelandic punk/new wave scene, and is absolutely worth checking out.  Not to mention probably cheaper (and more convenient) than buying it on vinyl, assuming you can even find it outside of Europe.  But then again, if you buy the mp3 you won’t get this sweet album cover of some dude holding a sheep over his head, which is pretty damn cool.  Unless you’re the sheep.

Ghostigital – “Division of Culture & Tourism” and “Don’t Push Me” EP


Ghostigital only played a handful of live shows between 2009 and 2011…. and I was lucky enough to see two of them.  At Airwaves in 2009 they were in the middle of a bizarre lineup that found them wedged in between the very 70s ABBAesque pop stylings of BB & Blake, and the Icelandic hip hop band XXX Rottweiler.  I was woefully unprepared for the Ghostigital experience that time, but I was more than ready when they took the stage at Faktory in 2011.  At least as ready as you can ever be to see Einar Orn and the Ghostigital experience.  And trust me brothers and sisters, it is an experience.  I think the best word to describe my state of mind after seeing their 2009 show is “stunned”.

It took about a year following my first Ghostigital experience before I could screw up the courage to actually listen to their current album at the time, In Cod We Trust.  I didn’t take to it immediately, but I’m glad I gave it a chance and stuck it out – there is some brilliant music on there.  It’s not feel-good, and it’s not safe pop background music.  I mean, not everyone can write a song about the Cod Wars fought on the high seas between Iceland and England, and actually make it good.  The music intense, in-your-face, disjointed, and jarring.  But it will get you moving, as we saw at Faktory in 2011 when the packed crowd looked like a small sea of bobbing heads.

2012 saw two new (though related) releases from Ghostigital – their third LP, Division of Culture & Tourism, along with a Record Store Day Europe 12″ called Don’t Push Me.  One of the great benefits of our modern age is the accessibility of music (and just stuff in general), and I was able to track down a copy of the 12″ on eBay, which held me over until the full album was released (even though I have Division of Culture & Tourism on mp3, I strongly suspect I’ll be picking up a copy on vinyl as well when we’re in Reykjavik in a few weeks – vinyl is better!).  And I know we’re going to see them again live, hopefully catching both of their scheduled shows.  If you’re interested in the Ghostigital live experience, check out the KEXP radio website (www.kexp.org) – they’re broadcasting some live sets from Airwaves this year, including one of the Ghositigal shows.

Einar Orn is one of those names in Icelandic music that seems to keep showing up no matter where I look.  He was part of one of the earliest important punk bands in the country, Purrkur Pillnikk, and later a member of both KUKL and The Sugarcubes alongside Bjork.  Today he works for the city of Reykjavik making sure your busses run on time.  And continues to make challenging music,

Division of Culture & Tourism is a kick-ass album, and one featuring collaborations with a number of other great musicians.  Rapper Sensational is back, reprising his intermittent appearances on the first two Ghostigital albums – it would be amazing if he could join them live, as his lyrical style is perfect for the band’s sound.  David Byrne of Talking Heads fame contributes on a track, as does Suicide’s Alan Vega.  When it comes to collaboration, Einar Orn’s usual approach is to send a track to his collaborator and basically allow them to do whatever they want with it.  Based on the results, it seems like a good plan – my favorite two songs on the album are “Don’t Push Me,” featuring Sensational, and “Dreamland,” featuring David Byrne.  Byrne does most of the vocals on “Dreamland” with Einar coming in for the chorus parts (if you can really call it a chorus), and he delivers the best line on the album with “I was born in the Devil’s toolbox / I went to school where the wind don’t blow.”  An honorable mention goes out for “Hovering Hoover Skates”, which has a solid beat and some pretty funny lyrics, including references to mustaches.

What makes me so spectacular?
Is it my fabulous hat?
No, no, no,
It’s my mooo-stache,
It’s so great!

The Don’t Push Me EP consists of four tracks – the album versions of “Don’t Push Me” and “Scary Scary”, along with a song not found on the LP, “Elastic Tongue”, and a remix of “Don’t Push Me” by the Icelandic duo Gluteus Maximus.  The remix is the highlight, as Gluteus Maximus completely stripped out the music from the original track and replaced it with a heavy, quick bass-beat.  It’s a more stripped down, minimalist approach than the original, and very cool.

It’s not dance music, but I have to admit I always find my feet or my head moving, or fingers tapping, when Ghostigital is playing.