Review by: Dinar Khayrutdinov
Ah, the 1990s! The decade that would bring our heroine worldwide fame and glory! But at the very beginning of this decade she was still just a young promising vocalist in a European alt rock band barely known outside Iceland.
At the end of my review of Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week I said that The Sugarcubes went on a hiatus after that album, and it looks like Björk saw it as a chance of trying something new, at the same time taking a rest from all the post-punky experimentalism she engaged in with her three previous bands. And Björk, as you’d imagine, isn’t someone to settle for just ONE new thing to try, so here’s a list of all the new stuff she tried during that hiatus:
- She played some clarinet in a big-band called Hljómsveit Kondráds;
- She recorded backing vocals for an album named Gums by a band named Bless;
- She recorded a lounge jazz album, and this latter one actually became her best-selling record in her home country FOR YEARS TO COME! Imagine that!
This latter effort is also the one I am reviewing today, since it feels significant enough for Björk’s subsequent career. So, Björk joins a fairly successful Icelandic trio of pianist Guðmundur Ingólfsson, drummer Guðmundur Steingrímsson and bassist Þórður Högnason and they create this little almost-forgotten gem.
I will say outright that I have a really soft spot for this record: yes, it is a collection of pretty basic lounge jazz covers of some popular Icelandic and English-language standards instrumentally performed in a pretty generic way. But at the same time the record has two very obvious and pretty undeniable advantages:
- It is so unassuming, humble and almost childishly lightweight that it’s literally impossible to criticize these very simple renditions of several jazz tunes, intended to be just that – simple renditions of several jazz tunes and even a couple of silly children’s numbers. Even the album’s title suggests that – it can be literally translated to English as “ding-dong” (i.e. the sound that bells make, not what some of you have just imagined!).
- Björk’s singing. OH MY GOD SHE COULD HAVE BEEN A JAZZ QUEEN. Her unique charisma, raw emotionality and fantastic range make these lounge pieces sound so alive, so frantic, so filled with passion and so unique! Listen to stuff like Kata Rokkar and tell me it does not sound absolutely ecstatic while at the same time being so boyishly cute. God, her ability of being so many things within just one song is astounding! All the intricacies of her voice rising, falling, jumping, shrieking, then gently floating and then madly rushing again, while staying so human and relatable at all times, make you completely forget about the generic playing and enjoy the fun ride.
The only thing I dislike about this record, apart from that generic playing, is that alongside great stuff like the aforementioned Kata Rokkar or Pabbi Minn or Litli tónlistarmaðurinn or Tondeleyo or Ruby Baby, there are also subpar songs which Björk still does well, but these songs provide her much less room to really shine, and hence they don’t feel as idiosyncratic. But on the whole this is one enjoyable record if you’re at all into vocal jazz, I promise you that.
Tune in next time, when we are going to follow Björk as she wraps up her band career before completely embarking on her solo musical journey.
Review by: Dinar Khayrutdinov
And here we go again! Hope you missed me and my Björkish reviews!
So, the year is 1989, and the followup Sugarcubes album has just been released, a little over a year after the debut. I’ll state right away that it is not nearly as good. The vibe is still there, the jovial energy is also still present, but the songwriting isn’t at all interesting this time around. Another problem is that for some reason they decided that Einar Örn should do as much vocals as Björk. Baaaaad mistake, Sugarcubes. I could actually end my review right here because I honestly think that only hardcore Björk or Sugarcubes fans should bother with this record. But on the other hand that would be doing this album grave injustice, because it isn’t bad at all! In fact, if Life’s Too Good never existed, I would quite enjoy Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week! So, instead of bashing the hell out of it I’ll try to concentrate on the good things:
- The bass playing is very consistent throughout the record, kudos to Bragi Ólafsson! Sigtryggur Baldursson’s neat drumming complements it nicely, too.
- The songs are mostly short and fast, which makes them enjoyable even if they’re not very memorable.
- The guitar licks are very new-wavy which somehow makes this record janglier than its predecessor.
- Björk’s singing is great as always (It’s when Einar Örn opens his mouth that problems begin, and BOY does he sing a lot here, unfortunately).
- (Have to make them at least five, have to make them at least five) Weeeell… Errrr…. The fifth advantage of this album would be… would be… Well, the album’s title is interesting, I guess? (A piece of trivia: It’s a reference to Wind in the Willows!) Maybe not. Whatever.
So… yeah. That’s it. Overall it’s just an okay album, so if you’re a casual fan, get Life’s Too Good and be happy with it. Cause this one is really basically the same, only worse in several aspects.
The Sugarcubes themselves probably understood that too and went on a hiatus right after finishing their tour to promote this record.
Tune in next time, when we find out what is it exactly that her Björkishness was busy with during said hiatus.
Review by: John Short
Reviewed by: Francelino Prazeres de Azevedo Filho
Assigned by: Schuyler L.
This here is an oddity; American arranger and film score composer William S. Fischer had travelled to the Basque Country in Spain, and decided to record funky versions of their traditional songs. The name of the record couldn’t be other than “Akelarre”, which might be the only Basque loanword in the English language. The word itself comes from the words “aker”, “he-goat”, and “larre”, “meadow”, but is more accurately translated as “Witches’ Sabbath”, the place where they were supposed to perform their dark rituals, guided by Satan in the guise of a black he-goat.
Despite having such an occult title, Akelarre itself is quite lightweight. All the tracks are completely instrumental, and they have the base melodies taken from the Basque musicality, and those are usually done with the flute. The other most prominent instrument is the electric guitar, which is often very screechy, to the point where I don’t know whether it’s playing distorted folk lines, or adding new ones. Not that it matters, it is the strongest point of the record! Completing the line-up, there is a jazzy/funky rhythm section of bass and drums, nothing out of the ordinary, and some electric effects.
Now, the flaw of this approach is that, most of the time, it is too mellow to have the strength funk demands. The flutes are played in a very… “softspoken” way, that lacks the acuteness that I so love in this instrument. This problem is particularly notable in the stretch from the third to the fifth track, in which the album slogs in flimsy jazzy wallpaper. The sixth track, “Eguntto Batez”, my favourite, comes to the rescue then, and it’s almost shocking how fierce it is, specially by the halfway mark where the guitars start raging in a solo clearly inspired by Eddie Hazel! The rest of the album sits in between these two extremes, and to be fair, not even at the lowest point this is as annoying as some jazz I’ve found. The ninth track, “Xarmangarria”, is also a highlight.
The basic Basque melodies themselves are also beautiful, and the more I listen, the more I notice the traditional backbone that holds this album. I’d say this particular factor makes Akelarre a “grower”, and not as much an obvious jazz-fusion as it would have seemed. However, and this might be more of my flaw as a listener, I can’t help but feel the lack of vocals really hampers this album, and make it much less interesting than it could have been. A coarse voice singing or even chanting something in Basque would do wonders to make even the most uneventful parts more interesting! It might even bring some of the promised witchcraft to this otherwise nice album.
Review by: John Short
Review by: Ivan Kovalevsky
Assigned by: Eric Pember
Preface: on the day of writing this review, i ingested a large amount of the substance lysergic acid diethylamide. Evidently, I thought it would be a reasonable idea to write my review of this album while feeling the effects of that particular substance. It was a wet night when this happened, and I was in the dark, in some public space, wandering around like a child when I was coming up. The friends I had needed to go home, so I wandered around the city for a while, looking in wonder at the fluctuating world around me before deciding that walking home in this state was not necessarily optimal for my sanity. I made the most sensible decision I could, which was taking a taxi home as the rain worsened. The ride was hellish – I had no idea where I was in the city. It had become an abstracted maze of grey shapes, formless hulks looming out of the fractalised dark. We drove through a park and the green of the wet, dusky leaves perhaps saved me from insanity as it was filtered through the harsh electronic light of the lamps. When I emerged from the taxi, the rain had stopped to a drizzle, and the pastel fish on my raincoat smiled at me as though we shared some obscure, nameless secret. I listened to the first half of this album pacing up and down the hallway of my apartment, and the carpet felt almost like a holy land as I walked on it. I sat down at my computer around the time the song Hands of the Juggler was beginning, and aside from the brief note at the beginning, I was almost possessed by the album. It was automatic writing in its purest, untainted form. The review you are about to read is perhaps a quarter of the size of the original review, which contained pointed remarks towards people I knew, and whom I did not know (The person who assigned me this album gets a mention as both “the master of lies” and “the gouda dispensee”, two occupations I am not sure Eric would actually qualify as), dipping in and out of gibberish until it comes until the flaming wreckage which I have preserved as the ending three paragraphs. The repetition of the word “eleven” is the high me assuring the reader that I am not panning the album, working under the assumption that they have managed to work through the rest of the review.
(beginning with a query: why are the first two bonus tracks of this album by art bears and aksak maboul, respectively? both feature frith as a player, if not necessarily guitarist (giving fred frith the title of a guitarist seems mildly belittling in itself, does it not?), but when they are both on rather well-respected albums of their own, is it really a necessity? on.)
so, this is gravity, an album from 1980, which doesn’t sound like it was from 1980. it doesn’t really sound like it is from any time. it is maddeningly ageless, and maddening in a good way. gravity transcends genre and time, as testament to frith’s skill; jumping from one mood and locale to the next with freakish dexterity. it’s generally just hard to posit what you’re listening to when it transposes as many moods as this does.
(oh, mr frith, you are classically trained! the deformed body of rock in opposition suddenly seems more crudely exposed to me than ever.)
klezmer, polka, calypso, is something wrong? then dancing in the street, oh! is something wrong! (that strange rhythm! dance your sins away in the swirling dervishes’ palace of sin, for christ’s sake, you heretical bastard.) have i committed a crime? is something wrong?
we see mr frith and madam krause (of art bears fame, for as of album time, she has not been claimed by the fearful mr brecht of berlin). they both wear pastel-pigmented dresses with polka dots splayed into spontaneous rows. (see: leigh bowery, or something in their style)
krause: die strasse est bedeutungslos. alle ewigkeit ist in der decke de wolke verloren, und ich juckreiz.
frith: for god’s sake woman.
(the members of SAMLA MAMMAS MANNA shamble onto the stage, dressed as an elaborate pantomime horse, and conversing softly in mannered swedish about the latest tuxedomoon album. legend says that an unnamed member of the famous residents sew the costume for them)
frith: what the fuck is this shit doing on my album you fuckers. i wanted joy, not nonsense.
krause: for these are dangerous times.
frith: go piss up a rope.
frith walks off the side of the stage, and the magician of the music vanishes. the ghosts of the ronettes, bleached bone-white by collegiate bastardism and commercial overuse, surreptitiously appear and vanish in front of krause, who faints, if only to mold with her gender role.
10 glorious years later, on the outskirts of joujouka, the ghost of mr brian jones is spotted by an unnamed british traveller who sells her story to the sun and sells it for millions. she uses her proceedings to buy a new house, where her life becomes a dreary retelling of a roxy music song. en perpetuitas. in the same storied pages of that hallowed publication, shocking details are revealed of a mr frith’s barely concealed affair with that cad vivian darkbloom; the story is ignored because neither person is popular or very personally interesting at all outside of some leftist rubbish recorded in the seventies.
and they say there are other things to come from this unholy union too. a crew of undergraduate students locked in their conservatorium room by a crazed professor soon learned how to make shards of broken beer-bottle glass adopt the sound of a weeping xylophone. (enough with your soulless vienna school claptrap, get to the fucking point, you cunt.) they felt as though the whole universe had given them a nudge. they were also not yet ready to die.
so gravity is all at once full of (teeming with, bursting with, as though it were a hornets’ nest) life, which is taken away by the experimental tendencies which yea, even the best of us are prey to.
i hear the deluxe remaster comes’ with herr frith’s piss samples.
(eleven eleven eleven eleven eleven eleven eleven eleven eleven eleven)