“Tvær Í Takinu” Compilation

tvaeritakinuThe Reykjavik flea market, like flea markets everywhere, is a hit-or-miss affair.  There are a couple of regular full time used music sellers, but there are also random boxes of CD and vinyl scattered among the stalls.  I’ve done well there in the past, but this year only came away with a few mediocre odds and ends.  One of which was a $3 copy of Tvær Í Takinu, a 1984 comp of various well known Icelandic performers.  Sure it wasn’t in great shape.  But hey, I’d heard of most of the artists, so why not.

Turns out this is actually the second record of a two record set.  Volume 1 was all non-Icelandic acts like UB-40 and Culture Club, while Volume 2 was all the Icelandic stuff.  I’m not sure if the lady had Volume 1 somewhere in that box too… though if she did, I probably wouldn’t have assumed it was part of this and would have passed it by.  Doh!  Such is life.

Now supposedly this set is kind of rare, something to do with it being pulled due to the failure to secure rights to the Megas song “Fatlað Fól.”  I of course have no idea how true this is, or how someone online arrived at the estimate that maybe 500 copies of this exist.  But whatever.  Still an interesting story.

A lot of bands and artists I’ve previously written about here are among the 12 performers on Tvær Í Takinu:

Bubbi MorthensMegasBjörk, BaraflokkurinnEgóGrýlurnarÞú Og Ég… they’re all here, making this a pretty solid compilation.  The songs are pretty poppy overall, much of it in that 80s schmaultzy way, but it’s still decent.  If nothing else, it’s a nice cross section of the most important popular musicians in Iceland during the period, so if you can find a cheap copy, pick it up.  And hey, if you find a copy of Volume 1, let me know!

Grísalappalísa – “Grísalappalísa Syngur Megas”

We were wrapping up Thursday night of Iceland Airwaves over at Dolly Bar in Reykjavik, watching our friend King Lucky spin his Afro-beat and funk set, when it happened.  It had been a long day of music and food already, and I knew that I was about one beer away from a hangover, when King Lucky himself strolled over carrying a free round of beers for the table.  The die had been cast.  I mean, what’s a man to do?  I can’t turn away a free beer from a friend.  And that’s when Lucky (aka Ingvar of Lucky Records) told us that we needed to make sure to be at the store at Noon the following day… they were doing something special.  A dance performance.

Wait, a what?  “Yeah man.  No music, just Gunnar from Grísalappalísa and Uni from Retro Stefson.  I don’t know what they’re going to be doing, but it’s going to be wild,” said the King.

Now, I don’t know anything about dance.  I don’t watch Dancing With The Stars, and Holly hasn’t asked me to take her to the ballet in years.  Admittedly we did take swing lessons together for a brief time, and that was kind of fun.  Dance just isn’t my think.  But Lucky was excited about it, and when the cobwebs in my head cleared I remembered his words, so on Friday we headed down to the store to check it out.

grisalappalisadance

I knew both these performers from their musical works, but I was not familiar with them as interpretive dancers.  Nor was interpretive dance even remotely what I was expecting.  I was game, though.  I mean look, if you’re willing to get out there in front of a small group of people and dance, completely alone and with no music, you’ve got some balls and I respect that.  Gunnar went first (left), and man, that dude absolutely beat the hell out of himself. And I mean that literally.  Smacking his chest and literally punching himself in the face.  At one point he threw himself onto the ground and there was a sickening thud as his head hit the wood floor.  Hard.  Everyone heard it.  I give the dude credit – he committed.  He was all in.

What does this have to do with vinyl?  Nothing specifically.  Except Grísalappalísa had just released a single with none other than Megas, arguably the most important socio-musical force in Iceland pretty much ever.  They were even performing live with him, though we never managed to catch them during the festival.  What I did catch though, was a copy of the limited edition (of 250) 7″ Grísalappalísa Syngur Megas (BTW kids, the individual number is on a sticker on the back of the plastic sleeve the record comes in… so don’t get rid of it!) vinyl.  It actually came out back in 2013, and somehow I missed it.

grisalappalisamegas

Grísalappalísa Syngur Megas is not only a cool concept, it actually has a pair of decent songs on it as well.  You can actually check out both songs, in full, on the Grísalappalísa Bandcamp page HERE.  It sounds like this won’t be the end of their covers of iconic Icelandic bands, as I understand they just did a Stuðmenn cover as well, and in an interview with the English language Reykjavik Grapvine indicated that they had some other cover projects in the works.  “I guess the purpose of the 7″ inch series is to give these old classics a twist; and maybe introduce these songs to some people that haven’t heard them, or maybe make it acceptable for the hipster to like them.”  Despite the hipster comment, I still like the idea and will keep my eyes peeled for future 7″ releases.

Megas – “Í Góðri Trú”

I want to like Megas.  I really do.  When someone is a seminal musician in a culture, you feel like you should be able to appreciate them.

But I can’t quite get there.

megasigodritru

Now, let me be clear.  I don’t dislike Megas.  Not at all.  It’s not like his songs are in any way musically bad, and his voice, while distinctive, is hardly grating or annoying.  It’s just that without understanding the words (which are all in Icelandic), there isn’t enough in the way his songs sound to make them compelling based on that alone.  I’ve been racking my brain to try to come up with an American parallel, and the only thing I can think of is playing someone like Son House to someone who doesn’t speak English and has no real understanding of what Blues music is about.  If you were just listening to the sound of it with absolutely zero context, you could recognize the emotion there, but otherwise might be left scratching your head.  Probably a crappy example, but it’s the best I can do.  Maybe Neil Young or Lou Reed?  Can their music be appreciated without understanding their words?  Bob Dylan is a name that comes up a lot, and certainly Megas gets compared to him.  While Dylan doesn’t have a good singing voice, he does have a certain cadence that seems to go along with his music, whereas sometimes it sounds like Megas is singing to some song that is totally different than what his band is playing.

Í Góðri Trú is fine, but not something I’m like to play a lot, at least not until I learn Icelandic.  Which is incredibly hard to do, I hear.  So… we’ll have to wait and see.

Megas – “Drög Að Sjálfsmorði”

Ah, Megas.  “The Icelandic Bob Dylan,” as I’ve heard him referred to many times.  This one is going to be difficult.

There are songs that just sound great.  There are also songs that have interesting lyrics that are beautifully sung.  Both types can both be listened to even when their sung in a foreign language, because the sounds are so beautiful and/or interesting.  But what about songs that have a deep meaning, a criticism of the things that society holds sacred, songs made for the entire purpose of conveying a deeply felt message in which the message is the thing?  How can you truly understand and feel those songs without at the very least speaking the language, and probably also understanding the societal underpinnings?  I get the basic message of American protest rock from the 1960s – I’m a native English speaker, I know my country’s history, and I’ve seen how it progressed immediately following that era.  But I wasn’t there at that time.  It’s harder for me to be as deeply connected to that music as it is for my friends who are 15-20 years older than me who experienced it as it was happening, within the immediate context of that time.  I understand teen and young adult angst, but I wasn’t in London in the 1970s, so I can’t fully appreciate the environment that spawned the English punk movement.  But I do speak the language.

So when it comes to Megas (Magnús Þór Jónsson), I’m at a major disadvantage.  He does all his songs in Icelandic, a language I don’t understand at all.  Plus I know very little of the Icelandic experience.  Sure, I’ve been to Reykjavik a bunch of times.  I’ve read some books, drunk brennivín, and tried whale meat.  I even check out one of the English language online newspapers every day.  But I don’t understand what it means to be an Icelander, and everything that entails.  I can sort of intellectually comprehend what Megas is supposed to be about and his place in Icelandic culture, but I can’t feel it through his words or his impact.

So I’m kind of stuck.  But here it goes anyway.

I picked up a few CD re-releases of Megas albums at Airwaves in 2012, which earned me a raised eyebrow from the clerk at the store.  “Not the usual stuff tourists buy…”  True.  But I wanted to try to delve deeper into the roots if Icelandic music, so Megas seemed essential.  I have to admit I didn’t listen to those CDs much.  But that didn’t stop me from getting some Megas vinyl on this years pilgrimage to the North Atlantic.  One of those acquisitions was the 1979 (recorded in late 1978) double-live record Drög Að Sjálfsmorði, which translates to Plans for Suicide.  I wanted to try to capture Megas’ energy, and this seemed like a promising place to start.

megasdrog

By time Drög Að Sjálfsmorði came out, Megas had been poking people with sticks for close to a decade.  In Blue Eyed Pop:  The History of Popular Music in Iceland, author and musician Dr. Gunni credits Megas as “the first artist to successfully write intelligent lyrics in Icelandic within the context of pop music,” though goes on to note he was not well received early on, with his debut not only earning negative reviews in the press but also the distinction of being banned from Icelandic radio.  The ranks of Megas’ supporters grew slowly and steadily, and by time the Icelandic punk movement broke in the early 1980s he was a sort of father figure to the upstarts, who weren’t that popular with society as a whole either.  So he has the street cred of a seminal artist.

One thing is pretty clear from Drög Að Sjálfsmorði – Megas does not have a good singing voice.  Now, for my Icelander readers, before you start blowing me up with hate emails I’m not criticizing the man as a musician.  Simply put, he doesn’t have a particularly pleasant singing voice.  It’s a little high pitched and very raspy (Dr. Gunni refers to his “rough, mumbled vocals…”), and actually reminds me a lot of Óttarr Proppé, vocalist for HAM, Dr. Spock, and a number of other influential and interesting bands from Iceland.  Just because a voice isn’t “good” doesn’t mean it isn’t interesting or powerful.  But it is a lot harder for a non-Icelander to truly appreciate that in the case of Megas and the folk-rock style of music he performs.

Musically Megas’ backing band keeps it pretty simple.  At times the music moves beyond standard folk far and starts to become more prog, with fuller sounds, interesting twists, and even some quick solos.  My favorite track on Drög Að Sjálfsmorði is “Fatamorgana Á Flæðiskerinu,” a song that has a lot of music in it, but also features a Megas who is trying a bit harder to sing and carry a tune.  “Ég Horfi Niður” is another solid number with a cool blues-rock sound to both the music and the vocals.  The album seems to get stronger as it progresses, though that could be because I’m just becoming more used to the sound of Megas’ voice and therefore find it less distracting.

Megas’ influence on Iceland’s musical culture can’t be overstated.  Not only is he a tremendously accomplished solo musician, but he has also collaborated with seemingly everyone, from solo artists like Bubbi Morthens, Björk, and Þorlákur Kristinsson, to bands like Júdas and Ikarus.  I’m not sure how often I’ll come back to Drög Að Sjálfsmorði, though we’ll just have to wait and see.  I’ve got a handful of other Megas albums to listen to, including 1990s Hættuleg Hljómsveit & Glæpakvendið Stella, which features backing vocals by Björk on a number of songs, so for now I’ll keep listening.

Ikarus – “R’AS 5-20”

I’m not sure why, but this album cover made me think that Ikarus was a sort of classic rock band.  And… I was wrong.

As near as I can tell, R’AS 5-20 (1984) was the only release by Ikarus, which is somewhat surprising since I think it’s a good representation of how the punk/new wave scene was developing at that time, except a bit weirder.  Stylistically it probably can be defined as “post-punk”, but there’s at least one basic rock style track, and some of the tracks wander all over the place.

Given how much I’ve blogged about Icelandic music, it’s a bit surprising to me that I’ve never written about the artist Megas except in passing.  I have a couple of CD re-releases of some of his albums from the 1970s, so I’ll probably get to them at some point.  But Megas was an important, and polarizing, part of the Icelandic music scene in the 1970s and 80s, both as a singer/musician and as a writer – in fact some of his writing was used in songs by the band I just posted about, Júdas, in 1975.  Megas put out a number of solo albums in the 70s, and RA’S 5-20 is a collaboration with Ikarus on which he wrote the words to some songs and sang on some tracks.

R’AS 5-20 was a pleasant surprise.  There is certainly a sound reminiscent of Þeyr at times, but Ikarus breaks some new ground as well, most notably (to me) on the song “LoftKastalar” (“Air Castles”), which anticipates some electronic bands with voice modulation and what even sounds a bit like some backwards masking in the music.  Absolutely the coolest song on the album.  Ironically the track that follows, “Svo Skal Böl Bæta”, is probably the most standard rock sounding song , complete with guitar solo.

Overall an interesting album.  I actually played it twice back-to-back, which is unusual for me, but there was a lot going on here and I needed a second listen to get a better feel for the work as a whole.  Frankly I didn’t expect to like it nearly as much as I do, which just goes to show that you need to go into new listening experiences with an open mind.  I have  feeling I’ll be coming back to this one again.