As you know if you’re a regular or even semi-regular reader, Life in the Vinyl Land is an Iceland fanboy. So I was excited when the dudes over at ROK – Icelandic Music Review asked me to do some album reviews for their cool new website. The first such review just got posted – it’s called 3rd, the new album by Michael Dean Odin Pollock & Siggi Sig. I’ve written about Pollock before, both his solo stuff as well as his work with Utangarðsmenn, Bodies, Das Kapital… find me a band he hasn’t played with! So check out the review HERE, and poke around the ROK website while you’re at it!
Mike Pollock’s name seems to pop up all over the place in the Icelandic music scene during the 1980s. He was a member of Utangarðsmenn, Bodies, and Das Kaptial, plus released a solo album called Take Me Back in 1981. The singer/guitarist covered a lot of musical ground from punk to hard rock to folk. Not bad for a kid born in California and who didn’t move to Iceland until the 1970s when he was already a young adult. By 1984 he was ready to take on something new: new wave.
As he does on Take Me Back, Pollock sings in English on 1984, making the album much more approachable for non-Icelandic speakers. It’s a new wave record, but certainly one with other musical influences such as disco (“Boogie Man”) and some heavy doses of funk (“1984”). The sound is a bit on the darker side of new wave, with a dive bar vibe, a feeling like you’re in a big, impersonal city on a cold rainy night and need to hunker down for a bit and have a shot and a smoke before going back outside. It’s right there in the song titles – “New York,” “Berlin,” “Babylon,” “Armagedon,” [sic] and “1984” (about an Orwellian not-so-distant future). Side B in particular captures a feeling of alienation that is difficult to escape.
Just because you’re paranoid,
That doesn’t mean that they’re not out to get you.
1984 is a solid new wave effort, every bit as good as the more well-known albums coming out at the time. Definitely worth a listen.
My post yesterday about the band Bodies got me thinking a little more about guitarist and singer Mike Pollock. He’s a non-native Icelander, son of an American father and an Icelandic mother, who grew up in the United States and didn’t move to that island in the Atlantic until around the age of 20, but can still lay claim to having with many important Icelandic artists. His resume includes a stint with the Utangarðsmenn, Bodies, and Das Kapital, as well as playing with Iceland’s version of Bob Dylan, Megas. He’s prolific, to say the least, and I wanted to take another listen to his 1981 solo LP Take Me Back.
It had admittedly been a while since I’d last spun this record, so honestly I wasn’t even sure what to expect – it was a lot like listening to it for the first time. And it really wasn’t what I was expecting at all. I thought it would be punk/post-punk/new wave… but to be honest it sounds a lot like a James Taylor record. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. Sure, a lot of people make fun of Taylor and act like they don’t like him, but I always thought he was super talented and had a perfect voice for the type of songs he does. Mike Pollock is cut from that same cloth. Sung in his native English, Take Me Back is a cool folk-rockish album, though Pollock’s inner punk sneaks out at times, most notably in the very post-punk sounding “What’s Real?” The bottom line is these are stripped down songs that feature Pollock’s guitar and voice front and center, exactly what a solo album should be.
And another thing. The man can write.
He lights another cigarette,
and he pulls down the shade.
He wanted to be loved,
but he was afraid.
Now his hear lies open,
like a festering sore.
It’s a shame…
— “It’s a Shame”
Take Me Back is populated by the heartbroken and the confused, the lovers and the losers. And Pollock’s voice telling their stories.
The Utangarðsmenn were a short-lived Icelandic punk band from 1979-81 that broke up just before the release of their second full length album when lead singer and Icelandic music icon Bubbi Morthens quit his own group. The rest of the band soldiered on, however, and took the name Bodies for their first and only release, a self-titled four-song 12″ EP that came out in 1982. Led by the talented guitarist Mike Pollock, who took over singing duties upon Morthens’ departure, all four of Bodies’ tracks were sung in English in an effort to make the band more marketable, though the simple folded paper jacket includes the lyrics in both English and Icelandic to stay connected to the locals. Pollock is a major Icelandic talent in his own right, having played with just about everyone in the country’s music scene as well as releasing his own solo material.
Bodies makes a strong move towards new wave, particularly the slower, darker version of the genre. The songs have a moody feel, though they still maintain a more traditional rock/pop sound – the band didn’t make the move toward synths like perhaps New Order or Depeche Mode did, with the only effects per se being used a little on the vocal tracks and perhaps the guitars in “Dear Suzie”. The lyrics are a touch on the melancholy side, as I’m sure you can gather from titles like “I’m Lonely” and “Never Mind,” and while side A definitely rocks harder, side B goes deeper.
I bought this at Lucky Records in Reykjavik last year, having passed on it the year prior. I’m glad I gave it a second chance (at Ingvar’s insistence), because it’s a solid piece of work. Heavy and slow, but not in a depressing kind of way as the strong beat keeps you anchored and connected to the songs. I’m not sure if you can find the vinyl anywhere outside of Iceland, but amazingly you can get not only the four songs on Bodies but also an additional six tracks on iTunes for $9.90. So if you’re a post-punk/early new wave fan, you have no excuse not to get online and at least listen to Bodies. You can thank me later.
Bubbi Morthens is one of the the longest lasting, most successful, and almost certainly most prolific musicians in Iceland, though very few people from the rest of the world have ever heard of him. He was in one of the country’s first and most popular punk bands, Utangarðsmenn, circa 1979-81, before moving on to form a pivotal new wave band called Egó that released three important LPs between 1981 and 1984. With the demise of Egó, Bubbi reunited with one-time Utangarðsmenn guitarist Mike Pollock to put out an album under the name Das Kapital in 1984.
Now, take a look at this cover. After reading the above intro and looking at the band’s one and only album, what genre do you think would best define Das Kapital? Punk… maybe no wave… hey, maybe even heavy metal. No. This album has violins on some tracks. And harmonicas. And saxophone. It’s certainly a rock album, sometimes moving towards some rockabilly, but one thing it is not is hard.
The cover actual makes some sense if you know the reference to the album’s title, Lili Marlene. “Lili Marlene” was a poem written by a German soldier during World War I later published in 1937, then turned into a very popular love song in 1938. While the girl on the cover is perhaps a bit young to be the woman the soldier dreams of in “Lily Marlene,” the inclusion of World War I general and later post-war president of Germany Paul von Hindenburg, juxtaposed with the skeletons (the war dead) and the youthful soldiers give one pause… especially given that the band is named after the famous Communist manifesto Das Kapital. The band includes their own cover of “Lili Marlene” as the opening track of side B, one that starts slow and soulful before breaking out into the most punk sounding song on the album. Morthens also sneaks a song in English onto that side called “Fallen Angels,” which showcases a bit of his punk chops.
This was a pick-up from Lucky Records in Reykjavik when we went to Iceland Airwaves last year. I’d had a copy in my hand the year prior but didn’t pull the trigger, and I kicked myself for a year while I waited to go back. This copy is a punch out, so with the hole in the cover and a few small scratches, so I actually got it for a decent price and in the long run it was probably worth the wait. Lili Marlene is actually available online as a digital download for around $12, but I don’t really know that it would appeal to a wide audience. Perhaps the big selling point here is Das Kapital’s role in the progression of Morthens’ long and illustrious career in Icelandic popular music, a sort of way-point as he transitioned form punk to new wave then into a more straight forward style of rock (and some of his later recordings seemed to have moved more towards bluesy rock), so if you’re an Icelandic music geek (like me) it’s a must-have. Otherwise… well… take a listen and decide for yourself.