Monday, July 18, 2011

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob:
Week 115 - Björk

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

Yup, it's a picture of the swan dress. It's the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Björk. Admit it: it's the first thing you thought of too. 

Björk is one of those musicians whose fame as a celebrity has somehow managed to eclipse her fame as a musician. In the United States of America, where she was never as popular as in the rest of the world, it's possible that many people only know the singer from her exotic-sound monosyllabic moniker and her famous cygnine Oscar garb. Until this week, I don't think I had ever heard a piece of music by Björk, even though I totally knew who she was as a public figure.

It's nice when my musical ignorance yields these surprises, and a figure I dismissed as a mere European novelty actually turns out to have talent, a willingness to experiment, and some great music to back up her image. I had assumed Björk was some sort of faux-classical easy listening - an Icelandic Yanni, if you will. Instead, she stocks up her influences to Stockhausen, Brian Eno and Kraftwerk, which is a pretentious list but also a surefire way to make me take notice and realize that I'm really going to enjoy this week's music. 

I suppose part of my surprise, I have to admit, comes from the gender issue. I'm used to my electronic music coming from men - either stiff, robotic men, or deejays hyped up on trance drugs. When you look at the small, delicate figure of a Scandinavian women, you hardly expect her album to yield the heavy electronic stomp of "Army of Me."

Put simply, don't just an artist by her gender. Or her wardrobe. This Björk week has not only been one of my favorite weeks so far, but also one of the biggest surprises. 

WEEK 115


WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: Apart from the swan-dress, almost nothing. 

MY LISTENING: I listened to Post (1995) every day this week. I also listened to Debut (1993) and Homogenic (1997) three times, and Vespertine (2001) once. 

WHAT I LIKED: Björk is at her best when she starts blasting electronic noises to create some sort of terrifying vision of Scandinavia, filled with volcanoes and trolls and pixie-ish sopranos with child-like yet fear-inducing voices.  "Army of Me" is a brilliant opening track, and somehow Björk's voice, which seems so thin on its own, manages to meet the electronics on their own level. Instead of getting drowned out, her voice fits with this kind of orchestration in a way that I wouldn't have expected.

It gets better on Homogenic, probably my favorite album of the week, which goes even further into this strange sort of apocalyptic electronica. "Hunter" combines drums, computers, and strings to great effect, and on "5 Years," Björk's voice barely manages to rise above the fray. Things could easily turn cheesy with these soaring ballads and electronic experimentation (and some might argue that they do), but it's too Björk credit that she still manages to craft the electronics to fit her own vocal style, rather than experimenting for the sake of experimentation. Björk often dances around a melody, her voice stuttering and jumping from pitch to pitch in a way that emulates the electronics in the background, and this keeps the listener on edge. You're never quite sure which way things are going to go next. 

Björk's earlier stuff might not convey the terrors of Ragnarök in the way that Homogenic does, but there's still plenty of good stuff to be found on Debut and Post, and in some ways her vocal talents are given a better show on these albums. "Violently Happy" has her stuttering and stalling through some fast-paced beats, like a gloomy ghost that's haunting the dance floor, while "The Anchor Song" takes things slower and allows Björk's voice to beautifully stand on its own. Really, Björk's vocal tricks alone are worth the price of admission, but the fun and strange and often terrifying instrumentation is what puts it over the edge.  What's amazing about her music is not the electronics alone (of which I don't think she's doing a whole lot of brand-new stuff), or her voice (of which there are hundreds of well-trained sopranos), but that she uses instrumentation and voice as specific tools for her own brand of pixie-demon-electro-pop. Nothing ever feels extraneous, even in the songs that are bursting with what seems like hundreds of sounds. Björk knows what sort of atmosphere she wants to achieve, and uses whatever crazy tools are on hand - crotales, vibraphone, synthesizer, strings -  to do it. 


There's a few points where Björk's genre-hopping got old, especially when she decides she's going to be a lounge singer on "It's Oh So Quiet." Yeah, it's impressive, I guess, that she can howl like that, but the song is one of the few times that Björk crossed the line and went from deeply emotive to corny. Similarly, when Björk breaks out the harp for "Cover Me," I'm less than entertained. There are a few songs I liked that were sparsely orchestrated and featured whispers, but mostly I preferred the loud melodies and obnoxious electronics. 

"There's More To Life Than This" also got annoying, but that's more from the sound effects than anything else. 

RANDOM DEMAND OF THE WEEK: Why hasn't Björk done a Bond song yet? I think she could do an awesome Bond song.

FURTHER EXPLORATION WOULD ENTAIL: I guess if I wanted to get hard-core, I'd pick up 1977's Björk, made when she was only eleven years old. More realistically, the next step is probably Medúlla, which is almost entirely a cappella. I wonder if I will like Björk as much without the benefit of her bag of electronic tricks.


Björk does a lot of songs that start soft but build to some epic musical climax. But I'm a sucker for that trick, and "Hyper-Ballad" is really the best of them. And it has the catchiest chorus.


I guess this was a minor hit in Europe, but it never charted in the US, so I'm going to assume you haven't heard it. It's the best example of how "strings+synth+Björk"="awesome."

NEXT WEEK'S ARTIST: The Pretenders