Music News

Bjork From Ork

Bjork
Telegraph
(Elektra)

Bjork's the fairy queen of post-rock pop, and on Telegraph, several of the finest producers and DJs in the European club, underground dance and hip-hop scenes attend to her at court. The former Sugarcube's third solo release is mostly remixes of material from her second, Post. Nonetheless, Telegraph is a thoroughly original album. Bjork laid down all new vocals for the nine fresh versions of old songs, there's one new offering, and in most cases the Post tracks are tweaked beyond recognition.

Only one cut on Telegraph, "Isobel," stays close to its source. Producer Eumir Deodato substitutes sultry Brazilian percussion for the more insistent African tribal rhythms of Isobel.1, but leaves the relatively straightforward, electronic pop framework intact. By contrast, the British techno collective Outcast takes Tricky's original fuzzy, funky, serpentine bass line on "Enjoy" and magnifies it into speaker-crippling bomb-blasts of low-end, then patches Bjork's voice through a stuttering Doppler effect. The track is jagged but absorbing, and when the crashing noise and eerie vocals cut off like a guillotine, the sensation is a pleasant shock.

Other Post tracks don't emerge from the wormhole in such good shape, including Telegraph's opener, "Possibly Maybe." LFO producer Mark Bell's plodding beat is a buzz killer, his keyboard drone annoys like a swarm of gnats, and Bjsrk's usual erotic pixy vocals are chopped into distorted bleats. "You've Been Flirting Again" also trips up the flow, but there is only Bjsrk to blame. She did the remix all on her own, sewing together a rough backdrop of "wee-ooo" UFO sound effects with chiming, modemlike tones and tinny, reverb-tinged vocals. The end product is discombobulated and shallow. Serviceable as background noise, the track doesn't hold up to an immersive listen.

No big deal. For the most part, Bjork's hand-picked crew of slice-and-dice alchemists cooks up tasty potions using her ingredients. The shimmery hip-hop groove Dobie lays at the feet of "I Miss You" is a gem, and Finnish techno DJ Mika Vainio's sparse, brooding treatment of "Headphones" is pure black candles and lace. The deepest track on Telegraph, though, is longtime Bjsrk collaborator Graham Massey's remix of her Tank Girl soundtrack hit "Army of Me." Massey, who co-wrote the original, removes all the vocals, except for a couple of looped chirps and coos, then carefully unfolds a fat trip-hop beat of lazy klaxons and tough, grumbling bass lines. Bjork deserves props for giving Massey such latitude, and for turning over "Cover Me" to drum-and-bass UK club spinner Dilinja. Minimalist and spastic, drum-and-bass is one of techno's least-accessible subgenres, and putting a d&b remix on such a wide release is brave. Unfortunately, Dilinja wusses out and waters down his brew to make it more palatable. Hey, you either like stout or you don't--a splash of soda won't help.

Not surprisingly, the two most beautiful tracks on Telegraph are the ones where Bjork's voice has the most room to explore: "My Spine," the album's only original song, where she's accompanied solely by a classical percussionist playing exhaust pipes like a set of chimes, and the Post cover "Hyperballad," recorded live with avant-garders the Brodsky String Quartet, whose instrumental interlude glides like a swan.

Bjork goes off on both songs, playing all her usual tricks, which never grow old--the charmingly fractured English, the wide-eyed whispers, the guttural growls, the ecstatic vocal starbursts. It's the whole kooky, little-waif-lost-in-the-wild-wide-universe bit that's delighted eclectic pop audiences since she was the magic behind the Icelandic, anarchic rock band the Sugarcubes. Bjork is precocious, and now fully on the post-rock/techno/trip-hop tip. Her move to London four years ago and subsequent immersion in club culture have made for two of the best underground-dance-informed pop albums of the decade--Debut and Post. And now a third recording that will undoubtedly draw a mass of pop listeners into the edgy, electronic fold. That's all good. As underground dance music seeps into the mainstream (and the flow is already irreversible), most of its stars will rise from the underground. Bjork is the exception, a pop diva who has the future confused with now.

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David Holthouse
Contact: David Holthouse