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Thin Icelanders

When the Sugarcubes first splashed onto the music scene back in the summer of 1988, you'd have thought we were witnessing Christ's Second Coming instead of the debut of a talented-enough pop band. Both record buyers and alternative radio gobbled up the 'cubes, but the critics were the true proselytes. Within weeks of the release of its first album, Life's Too Good, the Icelandic act had become rock's reigning media darling.

The accolades heaped on the band bordered on the absurd. "One of the best albums I've ever heard," enthused one Melody Maker wag about Life's Too Good in a review that read more like a mash note. British scribes weren't the only ones to fawn all over the 'cubes. Rolling Stone, probably the first U.S. paper to champion the group, was only a little less gushy than its U.K. counterparts. RS, which usually reserves hyperbole for commercial dynamos like Billy Joel, proclaimed the Sugarcubes "the coolest band in the world." The mag, spewing out of control, praised the 'cubes for being "icy," "martial," "brazenly eccentric," and "musically bracing."

Not just your run-of-the-mill Next Big Thing, critics were looking upon the Sugarcubes as some kind of pop messiahs. To vocalist Einar Orn, this praise was too much of a good thing.

"We were amazed, and then it got a bit scary," recalls Orn in a telephone interview from the band's home base of Reykjavik. The singer was in the midst of preparing for the 'cubes' soon-to-begin U.S. tour, which kicks off with a Valentine's Day show in Phoenix. "We just tried to ignore [the attention]. But it was difficult when people said, `I really love your record.' I didn't know what to say. Then I realized that the only thing to say was `Thank you very much.' You see, you don't compliment people very much here in Iceland. If people are doing good things, you don't go up to them and say, `Brilliant! Brilliant! I love you~!' and things like that."

Orn and the rest of the band worried that this U.S. fanfare might cause a serious outbreak of egomania. That's why--except for an occasional tour--the 'cubes have stayed put in humbling downtown Reykjavik, where they're treated like any other upstart pop band. "We didn't want to get sucked totally into it and forget who we are," explains Orn.

After the mega-hoopla that surrounded Life's Too Good, anything the 'cubes delivered as a follow-up was bound to be written off as disappointing. And sure enough, the band's second LP, Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week!, has raked in a bunch of mostly mixed reviews. "I don't know what people expected from us," groans Orn. "Maybe Life's Too Good Mark II?"

Ironically, the once-adoring British critics are the ones doing most of the 'cubes bashing these days. The very same Melody Maker that used to blather on lovingly about the band is now accusing the group of falling into the proverbial sophomore slump. The fickle British rags are notorious for squashing the stars they've helped create, so the papers' sudden switch from kissing ass to crucifying didn't surprise Orn.

"We always expected it," shrugs the singer. "We thought it was so strange that they were making us gods and goddesses, something divine. So we knew this was coming. I actually congratulated the editors of these papers on an exquisite piece of journalism. I think they expected me to be screaming down the phone."

Unlike most reviewers, Orn doesn't see much difference between the lauded Life's Too Good and the maligned Here Today. "I still think we're playing our sunny ditties with our special kind of humor," asserts the singer. He's right, except that these new ditties boast neither the bubble-gummy fun of "Motorcrash" nor the intensity and muscle of "Coldsweat," the two standouts from the group's debut.

While the band seemed likably eccentric on Life's Too Good, the wackiness gets out of control on the new LP. The 'cubes are still capable of a funny turn of phrase on occasion, as when they extol the virtues of synthetics on "Dear Plastic": "Dear plastic/Be proud/Don't imitate anything/You're pure, pure, pure."

Where the Sugarcubes really slip up is in demoting vocalist Bjork Gudmundsottir from front person to co-lead singer (together with Orn) on most tracks. Like with B-52 Fred Schneider's bullhorn ranting, a little of Orn's goofy vocalizing goes a long way. On Here Today, his obnoxious sing- speak butts in on Bjork's sublime alto constantly, letting her shine only on the lovely "Planet."

Surprisingly, though, Orn is actually quite willing to relinquish his band's status as critic's pet. Now that the group's fall from grace is behind it, he's hoping that just maybe the 'cubes can confront the pop world on more realistic terms.

"I'm happy with the way things have happened," stresses Orn. "After all, success isn't everything to us. Possibly now people won't expect a miracle every time we open our mouths."

The Sugarcubes will perform at the Americana Hotel Ballroom on Wednesday, Febuary 14. Show time is 7:30 p.m.

"It was difficult when people said, `I really love your record.' You see, you don't compliment people very much here in Iceland."

Unlike most reviewers, Orn doesn't see much difference between the lauded Life's Too Good and the maligned Here Today.