2017 Discography Review Challenge: BJÖRK GUÐMUNDSDÓTTIR & TRÍÓ GUÐMUNDAR INGÓLFSSONAR – Gling-Gló (1990)

Review by: Dinar Khayrutdinov

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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:

  1. 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!).
  2. 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.

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2017 Discography Review Challenge: THE SUGARCUBES – Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week! (1989)

Review by: Dinar Khayrutdinov

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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:

  1. The bass playing is very consistent throughout the record, kudos to Bragi Ólafsson! Sigtryggur Baldursson’s neat drumming complements it nicely, too.
  2. The songs are mostly short and fast, which makes them enjoyable even if they’re not very memorable.
  3. The guitar licks are very new-wavy which somehow makes this record janglier than its predecessor.
  4. 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).
  5. (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.

2017 Discography Review Challenge: THE SUGARCUBES – Life’s Too Good (1988)

Review by: Dinar Khayrutdinov

As it happens with many bands, KUKL split up some months after releasing their second album, and Björk formed a duo called The Elgar Sisters with their guitarist Guðlaugur Kristinn Óttarsson. Together they would subsequently record some songs Björk would use in her later career. At about the same time Björk married another guitarist Þór Eldon and shortly after gave birth to a son. And that was when Björk, Eldon, another former KUKL member Einar Örn and a bunch of lesser-known guys formed The Sugarcubes. 

But enough with objective facts, here’s the highly subjective part: Life’s Too Good is easily the best album featuring Björk before her solo career but also probably the only Sugarcubes album you will ever need.

In spite of featuring two ex-members of KUKL, The Sugarcubes is not shamanic experimental avant-garde act but merely an alternative rock band. “Merely” but not actually merely! This is GOOD and quite idiosyncratic alternative rock with solid pop hooks, fine guitar riffs, postpunkish dance rhythms and, of course, young Björk in top form. But here’s the twist: the original idea behind The Sugarcubes was to create… a humorous band! Imagine that! This was supposed to be a parody of pop music with its shining optimism (hence the record’s title) but looks like that was sort of abandoned in the process because the actual music ended up sounding bigger and better than a bunch of novelty numbers. And there are really dark moments on the album, too. But hey, the fun and the mischief are still there! This is a very enjoyable record!

You might know the big single from here called Birthday and it is an amazing song but the rest of the stuff is no slouch either. Motorcrash, Sick for Toys and the comic Fucking In Rhythm & Sorrow are my particular favourites (the latter DOES sound like a novelty number but it’s so exciting and funny that I don’t mind). Should I even mention Björk doing a great job on all of these songs? That goes without saying, doesn’t it?

On the whole, Life’s Too Good can sound too juvenile and quirky to some (then again if you don’t like quirky stuff you probably shouldn’t be listening to Björk at all) and too uneven to others but it’s so fun and weirdly exhilarating that I’d say it’s an absolute must even for casual Björk fans. 

Stay tuned for more Björkish reviews!

2017 Discography Review Challenge: KUKL – Holidays in Europe (The Naughty Nought) (1986)

Review by: Dinar Khayrutdinov

KUKL’s second and final album… is surprisingly different from the first one while maintaining the same overall direction at the same time (so yes, this is still post-punkish avant-rock and NOT “hard rock from some tasty geezers” like the caption on the album cover says). This is every bit as intense and surreal as their previous effort (almost as short too, at a little more than half hour) but golly! Look at the production this time round! A plethora of weird instruments, sound snippets, samples, diverse percussion, lots of bizarrely sounding horns and synths, some distorted guitars amidst all of this – this is some wonderfully messy avant-garde cacophony! There’s not much use in describing it though – it basically all sounds a lot like the album sleeve – chaotic and schizophrenic.

Björk’s voice, on the other hand, takes on the role of the element that brings it all together. Some reviewers express the opinion that she sounds a bit kimgordonish here, and I have to agree, the key difference being – Bjork can actually sing. Granted, experimental stuff like this doesn’t require actual “singing”, I guess, more of ecstatic shouting of the gloomy lyrics, but Björk’s vocal ability (or charisma, or both) still somehow shines through, especially when you compare her vocalizing to Einar Örn’s much less memorable yells. At any rate, this album deserves a listen (or even several listens, since this nightmarish music takes its time to really open up to you), especially if you enjoy dark and noisy experimental rock. The record’s total lack of structure might be a bit bewildering, though. But experiments are experiments – they are usually interesting yet short-lived, unlike Björk’s career which was basically only beginning at this point…

2017 Discography Review Challenge: KUKL – The Eye (1984)

Review by: Dinar Khayrutdinov

The Björk saga continues, my friends! After fun but short-lived Tappi Tíkarrass our heroine meets another bunch of creative Icelandic people and forms KUKL with them. ‘Kukl’ means ‘sorcery’ or ‘witchcraft’ and indeed this time m-lle Guðmundsdóttir and her pals set out to make some really shamanic music. This first of their two albums was inspired by a book by French author Georges Bataille that Björk loved reading as a teenager. The book was about some very young couple engaged in bizarre sexual perversions (you didn’t expect anything less from Björk, did you?), though, as far as I understand, that didn’t lead to this being a concept album but merely inspired a couple of songs and the album’s title and sleeve. 

But let’s get to the actual music. It’s… intense. This is the first experimental record in Björk’s career which in this case means you get pretty dark, gothic, noisy post-punk with strong krautrock and acid jazz influences. The sound is quite awesome, and, although many reviewers compare it to Siouxsie and the Banshees, and it IS a fair comparison, I’d say KUKL have their own distinct face. This isn’t standard gothic rock by any means, what with all flutes, pipes, bells and even an occasional trumpet, as well as proggy passages and insane rhythmic patterns. Björk is ecstatic as always but something tells me this record doesn’t make full use of her vocal capabilities – at times she even sounds intensely restrained. The production values, though some levels above Tappi Tíkarrass’s, still leave a lot to be desired. And, sadly, so does the songwriting – I struggle hard to remember at least a single track from here in my head even after several consecutive listens.

But this is still something, at times this music sounds almost cosmic; not to mention that it’s Björk’s first truly ambitious, truly creative and innovative effort, which won’t be to everyone’s taste but lovers of dark, frantic, brooding post-punk will appreciate it. Also, David Tibet rated it 5/5! Now that should tell something about it to all of you avant-garde aficionados out there. Cheers!

2017 Discography Review Challenge: TAPPI TÍKARRASS – Miranda (1983)

Review by: Dinar Khayrutdinov

Aaaand… Here’s where the fun begins. After meddling with some teenage pop punk and jazz fusion bands the 17-year old Björk teams up with bassist Jakob Magnússon to form Tappi Tíkarrass which roughly translates as “Cork the Bitch’s Ass” from Icelandic. Yep, that is their name. Cork. The Bitch’s. Ass. And the music lives up to this amazing title! Well, almost. Anyway, after a debut EP they release their first (and only) LP called Miranda which is enough to cork the ass of anyone who claims Björk has no talent. Seriously, this album rules! It isn’t amazing or groundbreaking or even innovative to any degree but damn me if this isn’t good! A collection of catchy, angry, energetic, melodic, new wavish post-punk (or postpunkish new wave, whatever) songs recorded with low production values (which basically amount to some distortion and echo effects here and there) and it’s all very, very enjoyable. Sometimes these guys sound like Talking Heads, sometimes like The Smiths, often a bit like The Fall or Gang of Four; there are also a couple of guitar ballads thrown in for good measure – in short, there’s a melting pot of cool influences on display but Tappi Tíkarrass hold their own. However, frankly they would still be good but wouldn’t be anything special at all without our future Icelandic diva – currently a boisterous teenager – on vocals. She nails pretty much every song and brings tons of charisma and attitude to the whole thing. This is her true arrival as a musical wonder, and it is on this album that you can already see how she would become a unique artist she is nowadays. Find this album and hear it – while it isn’t at all essential Björk listening, it’s very enjoyable and deserves way more recognition than it has. Good stuff.

2017 Discography Review Challenge: BJÖRK GUÐMUNDSDÓTTIR – Björk (1977)

Review by: Dinar Khayrutdinov

Before becoming a household name, Björk Guðmundsdóttir was a young Icelandic prodigy who learned to sing and play the piano and the flute at a young age and was naturally noticed by music producers of that small country when she was just entering her teens. The result was this little curiosity that only Björk completists and hardcore fans would now be interested in. What can I say about this album? It’s cute and totally inoffensive, and it’s precisely what you’d expect from a fairly talented 11-year old girl surrounded by fairly greedy producers, arrangers and managers. Pretty little songs with disco-ish beats and pedestrian instrumentation, three of them composed by Björk herself, the rest by some other (very mediocre) Icelandic composers, neither of these songs being terrible but all pretty unmemorable and performed in a perfectly childish voice. The two covers – Stevie Wonder’s Your Kiss Is Sweet and The Beatles’ The Fool on the Hill add nothing to their respective originals except for the fact that both songs are translated to Icelandic. There is one instrumental track (which is also boring but at least performed by Björk herself on the recorder). And not a single hint at the great things to come, except maybe for a fairly experimental sitar opening of the album. Well… I guess it’s no wonder she named her 1993 album Debut, as if to insist that this ACTUAL first solo effort never happened. But let’s not be too harsh, she was 11 for Chrissake. The good stuff is ahead, so keep following my Björk reviews (in which I’ll also try to review every band she ever was in)!