Saturday, February 28, 2015

Björk Marathon: Debut

After the split of The Sugarcubes, Björk wasted no time: she moved to London with her son Sindri. Hell bent on pursuing a solo career, she began working with producer Nellee Hooper, and together they produced Björk's first international hit single as a solo artist, "Human Behavior". It wasn't on rotation much on the radio, but on MTV, it was a blockbuster, on constant rotation, accompanied by a groundbreaking music video directed by Oscar-winning film director, Michel Gondry.


And then, on June 1993, along came the highly-anticipated debut that the world had been waiting for:


Like all of Björk's solo records, the album cover for Debut has a character representing the mood or theme of the album itself, which is shown through the sonic landscapes of the songs contained within. On this cover, that character is shy, demure, and humble, a newcomer. Though Björk is far from being new in the music industry, having had a debut album at age 11 and being in so many bands, Björk named the album "debut" to signify the start of something new. Even that is ironic as well, because many of the songs here were written by Björk when she was a teenager, but at that time, because she was in punk bands and those songs weren't punk at all, she had to put them aside. And then there are other songs that she wrote prior to the album's production. Far from being "new", the songs themselves are also far from shy like the character on the album cover. Instead, they burst with confidence, abandon, and excitement, ranging in many styles from electronic pop, trip-hop, world music, house music, dance, and jazz. So many electric tastes and fusions remarkably become one whole, like a united nations of sound. The album from start to finish feels and sounds like a celebration - a celebration about love, courage, freedom, and about loving life itself.

Debut received positive reviews and critical acclaim; it was named album of the year by NME and eventually went platinum in the USA. At the 1994 Brit Awards, Björk won for Best International Female and Best International Newcomer. With the success of Debut, Björk was able to collaborate with many British artists. Naturally, because it's Björk, there were many collaborators! Such as:

David Arnold. She worked with him on "Play Dead," the theme to the 1993 film, The Young Americans (the song would become a hit single, and would later appear as a "bonus track" with the re-release of Debut).


Tricky on his Nearly God album, where Björk was featured on two tracks:

"Keep Your Mouth Shut"

"Yoga"


Plaid on their Not for Threes album, where she wrote and sang the song "Lillith":


And she wrote the song "Bedtime Story" for Madonna's 1994 album, Bedtime Stories.The original version was called "Sweet Sweet Intuition," and there are actually two versions of it!

This is the first version, my personal favorite. Isn't it beautiful?


And here's the "techno" version:


Ultimately Björk would re-write and re-title the song, and the "Bedtime Story" we hear in Bedtime Stories is what made the final cut. Both versions of "Sweet, Sweet Intuition" would become b-sides for the Army of Me single.

And lastly, Björk had an uncredited role in the 1994 movie, Prêt-à-Porter (Ready to Wear):


Three more hit singles and music videos were released from Debut, which were:

"Venus as a Boy"


"Big Time Sensuality"


"Violently Happy"


Despite Debut not being Björk's personal favorite work, where she said that she feels that it wasn't "her best work," for me, this album is just the greatest. Sure, she's right about that - Debut is not her best work, and it may not be my favorite album from her, but what makes this album so perfect is the timing. Björk moved to London at the right time when the London scene was thriving and brimming over with creativity, where many international musical influences were coming into play and being explored.  And this was a ripe time for Björk's creativity as well, where no longer a part of a band, but now being her own artist, lyricist, and musician, she was the most open to new ideas, new influences, and new collaborators, all which would greatly influence the album that Debut became.

Today, Debut still captures the innocence and wide-eyed curiosity of that culture that has long been gone, but still flourishes here, as charming, original, and energetic as ever. Debut also preserves the spirit of the MTV generation, specifically on this CD and these DVDs from this album era (but was released later, in 2001):

Debut Live 
This CD is from an MTV Unplugged session. It's a bit rough around the edges sometimes audio-wise, but you can hear loud and clear all the wonderful cultural statements and musical influences on this record. This live version of Debut captures the essence of the studio version but unbelievably, it sounds sweeter, heralding a very creative, exciting, and refreshing new venture for popular music.

MTV Unplugged & Live 


This DVD is divided into two parts: MTV Unplugged (1994) and MTV Live (1998). MTV Unplugged is that session that the CD above is from while the MTV Live is taken mostly from later sessions from later albums. The quality of this DVD feels and looks dated, but the performances aren't. Watching this now, it's almost hard to believe that Björk was once an MTV darling, and even harder to believe that MTV welcomed an artist like her with such open arms on national television. The concert could've been livelier, but as it is here, there's something enchanting about how straightforward and simple these performances were. It wasn't about gimmicks, only about the music.


Vessel


Part concert film, part documentary, Vessel focuses on not only the MTV Unplugged sessions in-studio, but also on Björk. In her own words, we learn about her journey as an immigrant, what the album means to her, how she got on with her collaborators, the process of producing the album, everyone's musical influences and cultural backgrounds, and how Björk was (at the time) transitioning from the small-town feel of Reykjavik to living in a bustling, busy city like London, and juggling two languages, Icelandic and English, back and forth. This may sound boring in words, but on this DVD, Björk is just a ray of sunshine. She's literally jumping and bouncing and grinning with so many emotions as she tells us her story in her adorable soft-spoken broken English and dominant Icelandic accent. Her anecdotes are amusing, where she comes off as so child-like, dorky, and awkward. Very cute! She really is delightful and fun on this DVD, and the live performances feel very much in the moment, capturing all that excitement of what was a magical time for not only  Björk, but for music. Not to mention, this is perhaps the first time that Björk's concert footage has ever looked so clear, bright, colorful, and on-point from start to finish! It's just rich with perfection!

I suppose the same could be said about Debut too. It's rich, it's perfect. It's simply golden.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Björk Marathon: The Sykurmolarnir Compilations

So that's a wrap on The Sugarcubes throwback, but there's more: the compilations!


In 1998 (about six years after the band broke up), a greatest hits album was released, aptly titled The Great Crossover Potential. It just sounds so modest and humble of them (or their record companies) to call it that. This compilation features the hit songs from all 3 of the Sugarcubes albums and has not a single remix, no b-sides, and no new material. Tracks 1-5 feature songs from Life's Too Good, tracks 6-9 are from Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week! and 10-14 are from Stick Around for Joy.


If you want to skip the albums and only want the hits, or if you're new to The Sugarcubes, The Great Crossover Potential is the best place to start. It's a no-thrills compilation. There's nothing special about it other than the songs that are known and loved. And that's certainly not a bad thing!

The two other compilations in my collection (that were both released in 2006) are DVD's!
 

This music video compilation----like the greatest hits compilation---is a no-thrills affair. None of the music videos are remastered or restored; they still look as blurry, shaky, crafty, and simple as the day they were released from the 1980s to early 1990s. Though pretty poor and cheap---even slightly crude---in comparison to the very sophisticated, glossy, and top-notch quality of Björk's future music videos, part of the charm of these music videos are their simplicity and off-kilterness.

I've posted all the music videos throughout the Sugarcubes segment of the marathon, but here's my top 5 most favorites of them that are on this DVD:

Birthday (both Icelandic and the English version):





I just love it when Björk sings in her native tongue, and with "Birthday," it feels all the more organic. And something about Björk dancing while singing it brings it even closer to Earth on heaven. The English version is a timeless classic: it's wild, odd, and bursting with life and color. I also love it for how it feels like we're given a tour of Reykjavik through the zany point of view of The Sugarcubes.

Cold Sweat



This one is so dark and sensual. Like basically all of the music videos of The Sugarcubes, there's a story and yet no story to tell in the promotional. Something's going on---something scary, weird, and naughty. Whatever and why-ever Einar gropes a doll-like looking Björk lying on gold coins, or why at the end he gets pinned to a chained fence all beaten and bruised, who cares? This video's just ice-chillingly awesome.

Motorcrash 


Like the song itself, this video is just kooky and messy, in a good way! It's also another zany tour through Reykjavik, what's not to enjoy about that? I just love it.


Hit


This is the most polished and well-made music video that the Sugarcubes ever had. I adore the clown and doll theme. The video feels like a child's daydream, or maybe some child's nightmare? Clearly, as the lyrics say, this music video is about love, being "in rapture", and having all that joy inside you. The music video means all that in such a cutesy, adorable way.


Vitamin 


 This is their second most polished music video, and their most fast-paced one too. Like they did with "Hit", unlike what they did with their music videos before this one, there's costumes, makeup, and a story, or at least there's a story that could. Okay, so maybe there really is no story here, but it sure is fun to watch!

Divided into 9 music videos and 3 bonus ones, what The Sugarcubes DVD may lack in quality is totally forgotten when you simply watch the videos as they are, and enjoy all the fun that The Sugarcubes put into their short but unforgettable career as a band. And oh! Another highlight to this compilation, one that I haven't posted on here until now, is the addition of "Luftgitar" ("Airguitar"), a Sugarcubes b-side track, which stars Sjón as the dorky and sprightly Johnny Triumph!


 The last Sugarcubes DVD in my collection is the band's first and only live concert DVD, Live Zabor.


This 15-track DVD was shot live from various 1988-1989 concerts, basically pulling mostly from Life's Too Good with only a few tracks from Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week! And even though the quality of this DVD is worse than from the music video compilation with its shakiness, blurriness, and overall cheap and dated feel to it (I mean boy, it is painfully so 80's, and this DVD is begging to be restored!), it really is nice to see many tracks from their debut album performed live. The greatest thrill of this collection are the interviews between the songs! Each band member is interviewed separately, and each interview perfectly shows how alike they all were with their dark humor, awkwardness, and silliness, but also how unique they were as individuals. And honestly, I liked the interviews more than the live performances themselves. Not that The Sugarcubes weren't great live, but I don't think the filming did them and their shows justice. But the interviews? Here they are:


Oh Einar, isn't he adorable or what? Noticed how the interview segues into the song(s)? Another reason why I love these interviews. Instead of being a distraction, they actually serve a purpose, not just there as add-ons. They are pretty amusing---and even educational---to watch.

Like Magga's interview, where we get educated on traditional Icelandic food:


And Siggi takes us to church (literally), and within this same clip is Bragi's "Cat" interview:


Björk dissects a TV and contemplates stuff:


And Thor talks about cars as "poetry in motion":


I've listened to and watched The Sugarcubes CD's and DVD's more times than I can count, and still, this band just makes me smile. They were truly one of a kind, disbanded but their legacy and the affect it has had on Icelandic music and pop culture has never left the grips of Iceland, and the world.

For what it's worth - they're all friends to this day, and still manage Smekkleysa/Bad Taste together! 

On November 17, 2006, Sykurmolarnir had a one-off reunion concert to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their debut single, "Birthday", with all proceeds going to their record label, Smekkleysa (Bad Taste Ltd), and to promote Icelandic music. At that time, Smekkleysa was very close to bankruptcy, so admittedly, they did the reunion/concert at Reykjavik's Laugardalshöll sporting arena to save their label. If it weren't for this reunion, who knows if Smekkleysa would still be standing. It certainly helped and basically saved what must be now a national treasure. Despite the reunion's success, The Sugarcubes have adamantly said that they will never get back together or record new material. It's too bad that there has yet been a CD or DVD release of that concert, but some clips can be found on YouTube. Here's one of "Birthday":


And seriously, don't these people age? This picture's answer is: nope!


After their break up, all members of The Sugarcubes have since embarked on successful solo careers, Einar and Björk especially. The latter would not only have one successful solo career, but would end up being an even bigger star than she already was with the launch of one very special debut album.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Björk Marathon: Stick Around for Joy

1991 was another watershed era for Björk: it was around this period where she was cultivating her interest in house music from contributing vocals to 808 State's Ex:el album.


Björk was featured in "Qmart":


And "Oops" (This was released as a UK single in 1991):


She also contributed to Current 93 and Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson's Island album with backing vocals to the song, "Falling."


And around that same year she met harpist Corky Hale, the man that would one day be on her debut album as a solo artist. They recorded a session together that would end up on that album, but first...

What about The Sugarcubes?

Björk understandably wanted to break up from the group and embark on that solo career, as did everyone else in the band, but for contractual reasons, they had to stay together to record one last album and take part in one last tour, which they all agreed on doing.

Released in February 1992, the third and last Sugarcubes album arrived.


Stick Around for Joy doesn't come close to topping Life's Too Good, but it's far better than Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week! This album feels very early 90's---it's innocent, fun, and energetic. And it's so Sugarcubes---refreshingly quirky, bubbly, wide-eyed, and adventurous. And of course, we have Einar's trademark constant, frantic rambling juxtaposed with the impish, girlishness of Björk's voice. The artiness isn't here so much in the songs as it was on their debut album, and gone is that wild abandon in the music itself. In some ways, there's something that feels rushed and mechanical about this record. After all, despite their international fame, The Sugarcubes at the heart of it all was a joke-band, anti-music business, post-modern punk, characterized by a black, surreal humor that was all made abundantly clear not only in their music, but even in their interviews. Nobody---themselves especially---never thought that they'd end up being Iceland's first international band, having not only one, not two, but three albums to their belt. Stick Around for Joy is their goodbye album, bittersweet, but triumphant. These ten songs all pack a punch, but some stand out more than others:

"Gold"


"Hit"

(And what an apt title for a song that would be #1 on the Modern Rock charts in the USA and #17 on the UK singles charts!)


"I'm Hungry"


"Walkabout"


"Vitamin"



The record overall received positive reviews. The Sugarcubes opened for U2 on their Zoo TV tour in October and November 1992. To coincide with these string of concerts, Smekkleysa/One Little Indian released a remix album called It's-It, and from that album, Tony Humphries remix of "Leash Called Love" (the original version appeared on Stick Around for Joy) became a #1 single on Billboard's Hot Dance Club Songs in 1992.


And Björk in the meantime was featured in 2 songs of the soundtrack for the 1992 Icelandic film, Remote Control (known as Sódóma Reykjavík in Iceland). Then, around Christmas time, The Sugarcubes performed one last gig together at the Reykjavík club Tunglið, and then, they broke up.

Stick Around for Joy like the aptly titled "Hit" is a fitting name. The Sugarcubes ended up sticking to what they loved doing: making music. Even though it may not have been the most fun for them at the end, being more of an obligation, at least through thick and thin, they did it all for the joy of it too.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Björk Marathon: Gling-Gló

If you guessed Gling-Gló, you're right!


This is the only album ever made by Björk Guðmundsdóttir & tríó Guðmundar Ingólfssonar. They formed in 1990 while Björk was still with The Sugarcubes. That trio consisted of Guðmundur Ingólfsson on piano, Guðmundur Steingrímsson ("Papa Jazz") on drums, and Þórður Högnason on bass. How exactly the group got together is a bit of a mystery: one version of events said that Guðmundur Ingólfsson and Björk, after playing together at Hótel Borg in 1987, formed a friendship, while another source says that Björk made an impression on him from her appearances on a local jazz radio program called Godravina Fundur, and that he also remembered Björk fondly from when she was 16, hanging around his recording sessions at his farm. Either story sounds pretty possible, and whichever story is actually true, whatever the case, the group got together and made this album.

And it's basically everything you'd expect from Björk as a jazz singer. This is very much an Icelandic album - her only Icelandic album as an adult. All the Icelandic songs here are favorite jazz standards in Iceland, with two songs sung in English, the jazz standards "Ruby Baby" and "I Can't Help Loving That Man." At the instant I listen to this record, I feel like that I'm in a nightclub, and the music takes me away to this nostalgia that I can only imagine, but it makes me feel as if I know it and lived it.

The first song that tugs you gently in is the title song, "Gling-Gló", in translation, "Ding, Dong."


 And then after comes "Luktar-Gvendur" ("Lantern-Gvendur"), one of my other favorites!


And here's a (super rare) clip of her performing this live too!


Other highlights on this album for me are:

Kata Rokkar ("Kata Rocks")

 
Brestir Og Brak ("Crackle and Bang")


 Bella Símamær ("Bella the Operator")

  
þađ Sést Ekki Sætari Mey ("None Sweeter Than Me Can Be Seen")

 Ruby Baby

I Can't Help Loving That Man

 
What I love about Gling-Gló as a whole is its uniqueness, quirkiness, and classiness. It's rooted in old school jazz balanced with the more modern and whimsical. It's not your ordinary jazz album. It's a sweet and charming one that shines in every sense of the word. Even if you don't know Icelandic, the language is expressed through the way Björk sings in such a girlish, confident, and joyous manner. The album is simply infectious. I'm not at all surprised that it became a huge hit in Iceland, hitting platinum status there, and yes, to this day it's still Björk's most popular album in Iceland. The album was distributed by Smekkleysa first, and then One Little Indian. The Icelandic songs were recorded live at Reykjavík's Studio Syrlandin in only 2 days while the 2 English tracks was recorded in one day on Ríkisútvarpið (RÚV) television. As mentioned, the band performed live at Hotel Borg. 

Recordings from this session can only be found on bootleg, which have been posted on YouTube
 
They performed the nightclub circuit in Iceland only, until Guðmundur Ingólfsson died from lung cancer in 1991, and the group disbanded. 

If you love jazz and Björk, this is basically heaven---not only as a jazz record but as a testament to Björk's vocal range and eclectic taste as an artist and musician. And as mentioned before, being that this album makes it also her only Icelandic album with exception to her 1977 album as a kid, it's pretty special in that way too, and then some. 

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Upcoming Releases

It has been a long while since I've talked about writing, mostly because I really have nothing to say that hasn't already been said, and because I want to start making more of a habit of keeping things quiet and then surprising y'all with news on an upcoming release or, who knows, on a new release that's out now, hehe. In this case, the news is that I'll have 3 new short stories by three different presses: House of Erotica, Riverdale Avenue Press, and Wayward Ink Press. I know there will be a cover reveal party very soon for the anthology that "A Night at the Opera" is in. Stay tuned!

Vanessa

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Björk Marathon: Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week!

So this band was definitely on top of the world in 1988 with a critically acclaimed hit album that would sell more than a million copies. For an Icelandic band, that was unheard of! The Sugarcubes made history with their mega crossover success. Naturally, as always, they were busy...

A little after Björk and Þór's son Sindri was born, they were already divorced. After the release of Life's Too Good, Eldon had a new girlfriend, and her name was Margrét "Magga" Örnólfsdóttir. She joined the band as their new keyboardist (she's the lady in red, center):


And Björk contributed backing vocals in Megas's albums, Loftmynd and Höfuðlausnir (and she contributed one more time on their 1990 album Hættuleg hljómsveit & glæpakvendið Stella. Einar would take part too, just for this album).



So on top of all that, The Sugarcubes went on a North American tour, and their concerts got as much acclaim as their album did. They played at The Ritz (with David Bowie and Iggy Pop in attendance!) and appeared on Saturday Night Live! I'm not sure if this little interview was taken before or after their SNL appearance, but it's funny and worth posting:


Before they'd soon record their second album, Björk made another contribution, this time singing "Jólakötturinn" ("The Christmas Cat") on the compilation Hvít Er Borg Og Bæ. 


And then, at last in October 1989, Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week! was released. And...



It was panned by critics, and didn't really chart well. It was mostly panned because of Einar's vocals. Being that he was the star showman of this album, I guess that explains why it was so hated. Not that Björk doesn't shine here either. The magic of Einar and Björk is how vocally, physically, and musically, they just worked together, balancing out each others eccentricities. The problem with the album for me is that it didn't quite work in general. There was too much Einar and not an equal balance of him and Björk. The music and lyrics are poppier and fluffier. That isn't bad in and of itself, but the charm of Life's Too Good was the complete abandon, how carefree, silly, and ridiculous it was, so much so that it was brilliant. While Life's Too Good is still timeless in its distinctively 80's time stamp, Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week sounds awfully dated now. The music never really had that same magic either. It's not terrible, but it's not great either. Instead of hot, it's just lukewarm. Most of the songs are forgettable with the only stand out tracks being the singles, which were:

Regina 


Tidal Wave



Planet



And I liked "Hot Meat" only because it's Life's Too Good's "Coldsweat" with a country meets goofy pop flair.


And "Water" is very pretty with Björk's vocals and the child-like innocence about it. I can only find the Icelandic version of "Water" on YouTube, but this is as gorgeous too!


And speaking of Icelandic version, Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week was also released entirely in Icelandic, called Illur Arfur ("bad legacy").


I think this one was only released in Iceland. I have yet to find it in the states, not even on Amazon! Naturally though, the Icelandic version of the songs from this album can be found on YouTube.

Because of the negative backlash (and maybe because they were already bored of their fame and of the music they were doing), The Sugarcubes went on hiatus after a 1990 promotional tour, focusing their time instead on creating a light big band version of themselves called Hljómsveit Kondráds B with Björk on clarinet. They didn't record an album or publish any music from this era. Björk also had her heart set on creating solo projects while still dabbling in contributions and collaborations.

She provided backing vocals again, this time to a band called Gums on their album, Blessed. 


And lastly, in that same year, Björk created her own jazz group, and they released an album that is to this day Björk's most popular album in her homeland Iceland. Can you guess the album? ;)

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Björk​ Marathon: Life's Too Good

Before I start digging deep into The Sugarcubes, there's more about Smekkleysa (Bad Taste) that I always found so fascinating. Here are some fun facts that I discovered from an AMAZING indie Icelandic magazine, The Reykjavik Grapevine:

- Smekkleysa's motto was: “Bad taste and extravagance."

They didn't call themselves "Bad Taste" or "tastelessness" for nothing!

- Though a business, they didn't want to take themselves too seriously. There was originally talk that a restaurant called Mudpit and a radio station called Radio Devil would open in its name (this never happened). The company also would hand out "Bad Taste awards" to people who "excelled in extravagance and bad taste." I'm not sure if this happened either, but what did happen was The Sugarcubes. Admittedly, the group was formed solely for money, and just like their business's mission, they also did it with the intention of not taking themselves too seriously and just having fun.

Hey, they had to kick off their business somehow in some big way, what a better way to do it than to start a band for the music publishing aspect? As for the book publishing aspect, Björk released a book of her Icelandic fairy tales and poetry, Um Úrnat frá Björk (About Úrnat from Björk).


This 16-page book was handwritten and illustrated by Björk with crayons and water colors.​ Only 100 copies exist (I DO NOT OWN ONE OF THEM!), and are worth a whole lot of money these days.

 As for The Sugarcubes, they made their first appearance on July 18th, 1986. At their first gig, they were advertised as Kukl but called themselves Þukl (“Frisk”) a week later at their second gig. When they were an opening act for pop band Stuðmenn (Einar was their manager, thanks to how much he impressed the band for bringing a gigantic plastic lobster from London to one of their concerts), they called themselves Sykurmolarnir (The Sugarcubes). As that set-in-stone stage name, they recorded 12 pop songs. Two of them, "Ammæli" ("Birthday") and "Köttur" ("Cat") would be released on Björk's 21st birthday, and would later appear on their first album. To finance the release of those two songs, they had to rely on the publishing aspect of Smekkleysa again, this time by publishing a postcard (drawn by Friðrik) of Reagan and Gorbachev meeting in Iceland in October 1986 for a peace talk. The postcard did so well, and made enough money for The Sugarcubes to print Einn mol’á mann (“One cube each”). This was pressed only in Iceland. Unfortunately, only 300 copies were sold, and the editions were defective upon arrival (which might explain why I can't find or listen to this version anywhere!). All we have is the cover art:


Notice the One Little Indian logo? There's a history behind that too!

Einar spent a winter in London, where he met his old pal from the Crass record label days, Derek Birkett, formerly a bassist of the band, Flux of Pink Indians. They were working in the studio to process the songs that The Sugarcubes recorded at Grettisgata recording studios (a studio owned by Stuðmenn). As luck and fate would have it, Derek just formed a record label (that still exists today and still releases all of Björk​'s albums), One Little Indian. He decided that he'll release The Sugarcubes songs in English. Meanwhile, The Sugarcubes performed without Einar, even providing some instrumental music to film director Friðrik Þór's movie, Skytturnar (White Whales), which was hardly used in the film. When Einar returned to Iceland from England, One Little Indian released Birthday as a 12" single on August 17th, 1987 to help promote the forthcoming LP.





And then...a week later, "Birthday" was picked "Single of the Week" on NME and Melody Maker. And that was HUGE, and instantly put the Sugarcubes and Icelandic music on the world map! And then, before they knew it, The Sugarcubes also signed a distribution deal with Elektra Records in the United States after turning down a number of record labels that wanted to sign them. With One Little Indian/Elektra Records, The Sugarcubes recorded and released their critically acclaimed first album that would make them internationally famous, Life's Too Good. And of course, I have this treasure!


Released in April 1988 (three months after I was born!), this album now still sounds so 80's Europop, and yet at the same time it's far from dated, and it's still so fun, quirky, entertaining, and charming. It's not only my favorite Sugarcubes album of all time, but also one of my favorite albums of all time.

The album starts with a bang with "Traitor," one of my favorite tracks, and a pretty epic album opener.


I just love how in the beginning, you hear Einar mumbling something (you have to listen very closely to even hear what he's saying) with a harmonica playing in the background, soft and yet it drowns out Einar's voice, and then, out of nowhere, bam! The song begins with Einar saying almost menacingly "my punctuality is well known, when the revolution takes place, I'll be late, and I'll be shot as a traitor," and then, at last, there's that now familiar, famous, trademarked howling, fierce, and girlish voice of Björk​ singing "when the sun rises..."

And there's an Icelandic version of this song played near the end of the album:


I won't go through every song, because basically, I love them all, but here are the rest of the highlights for me:

- "Motorcrash" takes a serious subject matter and makes a joke out of it. Basically this song tells a story, a pretty grim and depressing one, but then it feels like a story right out of a cartoon as to what happens from the cuts and injuries and the spectacle of it all. It's pretty silly, but oh so catchy! And surprisingly, though no other single of theirs would top "Birthday," this song became a top 10 Modern Rock hit in the USA!


 - Well, there's "Birthday" of course. How can this one not be a fan favorite? Björk​ recently (as of February 19, 2015 on Rolling Stone) said about this song that "Birthday is about being in that magic world with a newborn." And considering that she had a newborn around that time, this makes that song a deeply personal one.

- "Delicious Demon" is just one big ball of fun of a song. Plus, I love the way Björk​ squeals "So delicious!" at the end.


- I adore "Deus". In that same Rolling Stone interview, Björk​ described this song like all the Sugarcubes songs as a "word joke" and that it "was sugary pop about God, which was ridiculous."


That's exactly what this song was, and that's why I adore it.  Plus, it really was funny and silly, and I like how even the line "Deus does not exist" is sung in such a lighthearted and childlike way.

 I like this song, even though I can't understand a word of it, but how nice of somebody to translate it into English on this YouTube clip.

"Take Some Petrol Darling"


"Cowboy" is very Einar heavy, vocally. Einar's vocals are always erratic, obnoxious, random, and crazy - that's basically one of the things he's famous for. This song is just all that and more.


And there are two more Icelandic songs that I really like.

There's "Dragon":


And lastly, "Cat" or "Köttur":



Life's Too Good is one of those very few debut albums that basically didn't take itself too seriously. I mean, c'mon, everything about the lyrics and the music is one big joke, and so damn entertaining. In a nutshell, Life's Too Good is one big party between these five talented writers/authors, poets, and painters who got together to share with the world just how much they can shake things up, and have fun doing it. Not to mention, this really was a declaration of how life is good. For these Icelanders, life was good, and they had this album and so much international acclaim to show for it. What was meant to be a joke became far bigger than they probably didn't even anticipate. Even today, the album still stands the test of time, and it was even picked as one of the 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. And this record is a prime example of how Icelandic music did have crossover power, and it started basically with "Birthday" and Life's Too Good. And that's so bloody awesome!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Björk Marathon: The Juniper Tree

1986 was a magical period for Björk. She gave birth to her son, Sindri Eldon Thórsson, and she married and moved in with Sindri's father, Þór Eldon. On the day that Sindri was born, Einar Örn (as well as Ásmundur Jónsson and Dóra Einarsdóttir, all three who originally owned Gramm Records, which went bankrupt around this time) founded a new business, the (still alive and thriving) record label and publishing company, Smekkleysa (translated literally to "tastelessness"), which would later be renamed Bad Taste. It was on this same day that The Sugarcubes was also born!



Called Sykurmolarnir in Icelandic, the original band members of The Sugarcubes were Björk (vocals), Einar Örn (vocals), Siggi (on drums), Björk's then-husband Þór (on guitar), Einar Melax (on keyboard), and Bragi (on bass).

Around that summer, just right after having a baby, a new husband, a new record label, and a new band, Björk starred in her first-ever acting role in The Juniper Tree.



Synopsis:

Margit and her older sister, Katla, flee their homeland in Iceland after their mother is killed for practicing witchcraft. Needing a place to stay, Katla casts a spell over a young farmer named Jóhann which makes him fall in love with her, ensuring the wellbeing of herself and Margit. Jóhann's son, Jóhas, sees through Katla's plan and pleads for his father to make her go away. To help Jóhas in his struggle, Margit's mother appears to Margit in visions and provides a magic amulet of protection for the boy. Will Jóhas be able to rid his family of Katla or will she continue to control them with her witchcraft?

My Review:

This movie really is as grim as the Brothers Grimm story it is based off of. Everything about it is so brooding, from the depressing storyline to the stark, cold, and rugged Iceland terrain where this film was shot. It's also in black and white, which further enhances that dark mood of the story. Obviously, if it weren't for Björk, I doubt that this movie would have seen the light of day. It was originally filmed in 1986, but because of financial issues with the editing, it didn't get screened until 1990 (for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival), was released on VHS in 1995, and only got released on DVD in 2002. The Juniper Tree is an indie fantasy, fairy tale, art house drama with the slowest pacing of a movie that you'll ever see, but the cinematography is pretty decent, the story is loyal to the original fairy tale, and Björk (as Margit) is clearly a natural actress. This is her first acting role, and she makes it seem as if she has been doing acting for ages. The rest of the cast are also natural and convincing in the roles they play. The film's biggest flaw though that makes it not that enjoyable is that frankly, it's boring, and it's not nearly as enchanting and magical as it should and could have been. But granted, this was a painfully low budgeted movie, and at least it makes up for it with the cinematography, decent script, pleasant cast, and of course, Björk. And yes, she sings in this too. The film is so short, being only an hour and fifteen minutes, so it's not too much of a time waster. It is worth seeing if you're a hardcore Björk fan, or if you're curious about seeing the first movie she's ever been in long before she'd star in the movie that she's most known and famous for, Dancer in the Dark. The Juniper Tree is no Dancer in the Dark, but it's fine as is, and that's good enough for me!

Monday, February 16, 2015

Björk Marathon: The KUKL Era

If you guessed (or already knew) that Björk's next band after Tappi Tíkarrass is KUKL, you're right!


Meaning "sorcery" in Icelandic, what made KUKL so unique was how they got together in the first place. In August 1983, Ásmundur Jónsson from Gramm Records wanted to form an avant-garde supergroup to perform on the final episode of a radio show called Áfangar. He knew exactly who he wanted for this "supergroup": Björk, who was already well known, of course, trumpeter and vocalist Einar Ørn of Purrkur Pillnikk (who also appeared in Rokk í Reykjavík), keyboardist Einar Arnaldur Melax from surrealist group Medúsa, bassist Birgir Mogensen from Spilafífl, and drummer Sigtryggur Baldursson and guitarist Guðlaugur Kristinn Óttarsson from Þeyr (who were also famous from  Rokk í Reykjavík). After their appearance on Áfangar, they made their first live performance in September 1983, opening for Crass, and then they recorded their first single, Söngull. This single also included the track, Pökn (Fyrir Byrjendur), meaning "Punk (For Beginners)".



Söngull would a year later appear on their first album, in English, as "Dismembered" with bells replacing the guitar intro. This is another rarity single that has never been reissued and one that I wish that I could have in my collection too.But alas, like many of Björk's early works, they just don't exist for purchase anymore and can only be enjoyed online/on YouTube.

But thankfully, and finally, there's an album from one of Björk's earliest bands that has been re-issued multiple times and that I'm very happy to own, and that's KUKL's first album, The Eye. 


 I love this album for 3 reasons:

The title of the album was inspired by one of Björk's favorite books (and mine as well), French surrealist author Georges Bataille's L'histoire de l'oeil (The Story of the Eye).


I have yet to meet anybody in person who has read this. I dare you to buy it and read it! It will be the most wicked erotica novella that you'll ever not have the pleasure to read. It's sick, sadistic, and challenging. Sometimes, I'm just in the mood for that kind of read and inspiration. It's unique, that's for sure, but it's so worth its oddity (but read the synopsis first before you dare yourself to read it).

And the art work for The Eye. It's so dark, bold, surreal, and sinister like the album, and the Bataille novella.



The designer for the cover art and illustrations was Dada Nana.

And lastly, Björk's voice! Her voice before KUKL was very raw, but here, though still raw, it sounds like her trademarked howling and soaring vocalizations are starting to take shape and transform, slowly but surely. The rest of the band (esp. Einar) are just as riveting. I just love how deliciously dark and wicked this album is and its sound. There are only 8 tracks in all. The album only runs not even 30 minutes, but I can listen to this over and over again and never get bored and tired of it. It's post-punk, goth, and surrealist music at its finest, and it has remarkably aged very well.

Oh, wait, there's another reason why I love this album. So let's make that four.

The music video for Anna.


Yup, this is so KUKL. Gothy, otherworldly, and strange, and totally not caring about what people think about it or thought about them. And speaking of that...

KUKL's appearance on this TV show, Rokk Arnir, made quite a stir. Why? Because Björk was pregnant and showing off her belly on stage!

The horror! The scandal! An old lady actually sued Björk for this! Or tried to, anyway.



After this, the band released Kukl à Paris 14.9.84.


This one was only released in France, on cassette. This may be another rarity since I've never found this online anywhere and as far as I know it's out-of-print/hasn't been reissued, but of course, you can find this live show in its entirety on YouTube. And it's pretty fabulous.


This particular show and release is important and worth mentioning because several of the new songs they debuted here would later appear on their second and last album, Holidays in Europe (The Naughty Nought). The song titles would just be altered, but the songs themselves the same.

Holidays in Europe was also reissued many times by Crass Records and One Little Indian, and is another post-punk gem from this awesome band.


This album is not as dark and goth as its predecessor, but it's more complex with the electronica and use of distorted sounds and samples. They're going for more progressive here, also experimenting with art and jazz. Sjón doesn't perform, but he did do the inner sleeve writing and art work!



My favorite songs from this album are:

Outward Flight (Psalm 323)


France (A Mutual Thrill)


- By the way, these music videos were all DIY-projects for KUKL. Back in those days, many Icelandic bands basically did their own music videos, lyrics, cover art, just about everything, without the help of the record label. The label just released the album. All else was in their hands, and they proudly wanted it and kept it that way!

And lastly, my most favorite song from this album is Greece (Just by the Book).


This one is the most complex in sound and structure. It's just gorgeous, strangely catchy, and dark, so anarchist-punk. Plus I adore the sound bites they used for this too, gives it that extra spunk.

Like all the other bands, KUKL disbanded after a few short years, mostly because the band members wanted to move on and work on other projects. Björk and fellow KUKL band member, the guitarist, Guðlaugur, formed together as The Elgar Sisters, a duo-band that co-existed within KUKL. From 1984-1986, they recorded 11 songs. They never made an album, but some songs from what is now called "The Elgar Sessions" are featured in future albums of theirs as solo artists, released as b-sides. Let me tell you, those sessions are gorgeous and charming, so different from what KUKL was doing.

There's Horizontal/Zontal


Green 


 Síðasta Ég 

- This one is a b-side on the Big Time Sensuality single.



And lastly, Patré.


All the Elgar Sister Sessions can be listened to on this wonderful YouTube channel by björk HD.

The Elgar Sisters ultimately disbanded when KUKL disbanded in 1986. Two of the band members would move on from KUKL and do big things on their own, while the other three, Björk, Einar, Melax, and Sigtryggur (Siggi for short) would create a record label and a band that would make them internationally famous. Can you guess who that band is? ;) Hint, hint: it's something sweet!


Saturday, February 14, 2015

Björk Marathon: The Punk Years

Something very awesome was happening in 1980s Iceland: PUNK! And I think it's fair to say that the teenaged Björk was one of the many trailblazers during that fascinating era. She was in many bands:

- Spit and Snot (an all-girl punk band)
- Exodus (a jazz fusion group)
- Jam-80 (another group she was in, juggling this one and Exodus)
- Tappi Tíkarrass (translated to "Cork the Bitch's Ass")

Not much is really known about Spit and Snot and Exodus. There aren't any recordings from them. Jam-80 never recorded an album either, but they recorded a demo cassette tape during a gig. I don't own that demo of course, but some of the tracks you can find on YouTube (I'll share some here):

A cover of Janis Ian's "Other Side of the Sun" 


And here are some other early recordings from the Jam-80 era:


(There's that famous Norse vegvísir tattoo!)






(And there's her second tattoo!)

Tappi Tíkarrass is Björk's first serious music project. They kicked off their career as a band with late-1982's EP, Bitið fast í vitið (Bite Hard Into Hell).



I don't own this one, but I've listened to its 5 tracks, and they're all pretty awesome. They can easily all be found on YouTube. Here's the first track and a cool and rare live performance of "London":

Óttar



London


Wasn't Björk one adorable spunky teenager or what?! That voice! 

Tappi Tíkarrass's official debut album was Miranda. 


I don't own this one either, but I've listened to the entire album before. It's not as punk as Bitið fast í vitið. It's disco, mellow pop, lovely listening. One of my favorite songs from Miranda is Sokkar.


I think all the tracks from Miranda can be found on YouTube as well.

I have no idea how to get these albums. None of them have been reissued and all original releases aren't available for purchase. Now they're just rarities, and can only be listened to through YouTube, downloaded by whoever is one of the very few who owns these records from when they were first released. What a bummer - I'd so love to have all of them in my collection! It amazes me how experimental and eclectic Björk was in her teens, producing such amazing work with so many bands.

The highlight of this era was when Tappi Tíkarrass appeared in the now famous and important music documentary on the Icelandic punk scene, Rokk í Reykjavík. 



In this documentary, the band performed Hrollur and Dúkkulísur.


Oh, I forgot to mention - Björk was only sixteen here!

So this woman has basically been in bands since she was 13. Damn.

From some reason it's also hard to find Rokk í Reykjavík anywhere (the soundtrack and the documentary). The entire doc used to be on YouTube 2 years ago, but has since been removed. The documentary can only be bought and played in Iceland. It's too bad that the rest of the world can't see it. It's one fascinating documentary, featuring many other famous Icelandic punk bands like Þeyr and Purrkur Pillnikk for instance. The doc was not only a glimpse into the punk culture of Iceland, but into Icelandic culture in general. It's a shame that it's not distributed world-wide. If you ever do get the chance to see the documentary in its entirety, you won't be disappointed, it's truly incredible!

The band also appeared in a comedy film, Nýtt Líf, where they performed "Sperglar" and "Kukl"


And they also appeared at the end credits:


And around this time, Björk was also collaborating with now famous poet and frequent collaborator to this day, Sjón, in a little band they formed together, Rokka Rokka Drum. Nothing else is known about this band and there are no existing recordings. And lastly, alongside her bands, Björk (by herself) was featured in Björgvin Gíslason's 1983 album, Örugglega, where she sang "Afi."


Tappi Tíkarrass broke up in 1983. Their career as a band might have been short lived, but it seemed like they did nearly a lifetime of work in such a few short years!

Even though I couldn't have possibly owned any albums (or casettes) from Björk's punk years, I had to dedicate a blog post to this era that will pretty much shape the next band that will come right after
Tappi Tíkarrass. Do you know who that next band is? Brownie points if you can guess right! ;)