Icon: Bjork

Wondering Sound Staff

By Wondering Sound Staff

Contributor
on 09.23.10 in Icons

Bjork’s got a lot going for her: eccentric songwriting, visual presence, a smartly chosen bunch of collaborators, high-flying conceptual grandeur. More than anything, though, she’s got a voice like nothing else on the planet. It’s bizarre and lovely, a sound that seems at home both on radio hits and in avant-garde art spaces. It communicates at least as much as her songs themselves, and in fact presenting lyrics is pretty far from the point: unless you pay close attention, she might as well be singing the phone book in Icelandic. (She’s not, is she?) — Douglas Wolk

Studio LPs

Live Albums

Few solo bows are as accomplished as Björk's Debut, which remains as bold a statement as when it first came out in 1993. But as accomplished as that record was, Björk, ever the adventurer, revisited and revised it just a year later on the "MTV Unplugged" session documented here.

While the studio version remains Björk's most accessible release, it's clear that the Icelandic musician was already keen on spanning continents and musical genres — her "Unplugged" band adds the likes of bedroom electronicist Leila Arab and noted classical/new music percussionist Evelyn Glennie to musicians who played on Debut, like world-electronic fusionist Talvin Singh on tabla. Live, Björk trades the record's club vibe for a vaguely spooky world-music ambience. Harpsichord riffs now form the backbone of "Human Behaviour" and "Venus as a Boy," while "One Day" builds on gamelan percussion. The only time the pace picks up is on "Crying," sustained by lickety-split standup bass.

It's telling that the super-dancey Debut cut "There's More to Life Than This" isn't included here; if you happen to think it's one of Björk's most underrated tracks, chances are you'll prefer sticking with the discofied joie de vivre of the album's studio version. But if you prefer the musician's more esoteric latter period, this live recording is an essential precursor of the experimentations to come.

The most surprising pop star of the new millennium is, like all true stars now, multifaceted. She's a club diva, an art snob, a folk chanteuse, a post-punk icon. But for Post, Björk was a rock star — a romantic heroine with a story to share and a clear, though not that simple, way of sharing it. Post's hits — the aggressive "Army of Me," the dreamy "Isobel" — were accessible sagas, coherent realizations of the experiments in arrangement and tone that Björk began on Debut. Post did what classic rock records do: it created a context within which her later, chancier efforts made sense.

This material helped Björk achieve a power and focus onstage that's memorably captured on this CD, most of which is culled from a 1997 performance at London's Shepherd's Bush Empire. Instrumentation-wise, Björk still surprises — the set opens with, aside the Ice Queen herself, accordionist Yasuhiro Kobayashi. (Producers/sound manipulators Guy Sigsworth and Leila Arab add some nice twists, too.) But the Shepherd's Bush tracks share a vigor that Björk's later, more investigational live work doesn't always match. It's also fascinating to hear her really learning how to use her own instrument, training those familiar yelps and bleats into expressive vocalizations. The few selections from television tapings aren't quite as good, though the string-kissed version of this musical-comedy fan's most famous cover, "It's Oh So Quiet," is as fun as one would expect. All in all, Post Live is a very bright square in Björk's cosmic crazy-quilt.

Recorded mostly in 1998, when Björk was busy cramming her biggest gestures into moody little corners, Homogenic Live finds the show-tune goddess shrieking and sulking against a dramatically pent-up backdrop. Culled from her first three albums (with seven songs from Homogenic proper), the varied tracklist flows through shattered electronic beats by producer Mark Bell and grand orchestration by the Icelandic String Octet, who give icy details a warm rub. The future-shock single "Hunter" takes on an Old World feel, with organic accordion pushed to the foreground and strings haunting beats that mimic a parade band in a bad mood. Björk's voice takes center-stage in a swooning, airy rendition of "You've Been Flirting Again," but "Isobel" quickly returns to crinkly rhythms that call for more in the way of digestion; Bell's production hand waves over an antic mix that pans and zooms through the song's internal and external squirm. Such real-time electronic treatments lend these live versions extra dynamism-from the squint-inducing synth glare of "All Neon Like" to the industrial swirl and clang underlying a terrific take on "Human Behaviour." All the while, Björk sounds both commanding and commanded, her strong vocal presence answering to ears wowed by what the songs sound like alive and animated.