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.
Anyway… 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…