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Bj&#246rk – Medulla

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It was all about the voice.

The radio was on one day and I heard these lines:

    Today is a birthday
    They’re smoking cigars
    He’s got a chain of flowers
    And sows a bird in her knickers

OK, I had no idea what this was about. But at that point it didn’t matter as I’d been reeled in by that voice. The song was “Birthday” by the Sugarcubes and the singer was Bj&#246rk Gudmundsdottir.

Now, I do realize that her voice is an acquired taste (though my acquisition process lasted all of two or three seconds), but it’s such a unique instrument. Of all of the “weird mouth noise” female singers (including Nina Hagen, Kate Bush, the Cocteau Twins and Diamanda Galas), Bj&#246rk seems to strike the right combination of humanity and weirdosity. She can go from a hushed & sexy whisper to a frightening shriek…all the in the same syllable.

At some point after my initial shock (and purchase of that fateful CD Life’s Too Good) the Sugarcubes broke up and Bj&#246rk went on to begin her solo career. Her post-Sugarcubes work has been populated with many stylistic shifts, emphasizing musics as dissimilar as jazz (Gling Glo) and beat-laden electronica (Homogenic).

Now all of the instruments have been jettisoned in favor of the purest one: the human voice. On Medulla, the highly textured layers of Vespertine are transformed into a symphony of vocal cords.

For highlights, let’s look at the first four tracks.

On “Pleasure Is All Mine” we have Bj&#246rk singing a very simple melody (with her own added harmony) before she begins the first verse, which is supported by Mike Patton and the Icelandic Choir. It might seem just a little bit formal if not for the various “voice-lets” that pop in from all angles: whispering, sighing, exhaling and generally providing an edge to the scene. I’ve read descriptions of the voices sometimes heard by schizophrenics. These could be the musical equivalents.

In a switch that parallels some of her career moves, “Show Me Forgiveness” downshifts to showcase only Bj&#246rk’s voice. With just a smidge of reverb, it’s a very expressive instrument.

“Where Is The Line” again changes direction to create a more typical Bj&#246rk song, with beats created from sampled voices and colored with a Philip Glass-style chorus.

The use of the Icelandic Choir on this record reflects the role that choral music plays in Icelandic culture (a recent New Yorker piece on Bj&#246rk puts it this way: “If one in ten inhabitants seem to play in a rock band, one in five sings in a choir”). So it’s not surprising to come across “Vigil”. Icelandic composer Jorunn Vidar’s simple and beautiful melody sets the mood for Jakobina Sigurdardottir’s poem:

    Far away wakes the great world,
    mad with grim enchantment,
    disquieted,
    fearful of night and day.
    Your eyes,
    fearless and serene,
    smile bright at me.

While Bj&#246rk sings this in her native language, the choir slowly builds a soaring counterpoint. Ever seen a snowflake form in slow motion? This is a soundtrack to that process.

I just can’t bring myself to describe any more of the songs on Medulla. Because Bj&#246rk is such a musical omnivore, her music (especially on this release) is packed with countless moments of discovery. It just doesn’t seem right to spoil any more surprises.

(First posted on Mark Is Cranky)

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About Mark Saleski

  • Eric Olsen

    so now she’s our Scandinavian Bobby McFerrin? Fascinating!

  • http://www.rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    I’ve been spinning that disc a lot. I think the title is Swedish for “I’m horny as a fucking dog.”

  • http://calblog.com Justene

    This review was chosen for Advance.net. You will be able to find it on newspaper sites including Cleveland.com.

  • http://www.mondoirlando.com Aaron, Duke De Mondo

    good stuff mark. i never been much of a fan of Bjork, although i can see why she gets the praise she does (she was fantastic in Dancer In The Dark, also). I was intrigued enough by the yackings of a-capella carry on’s in reviews i’d read to check out this album though. I don’t know what i think of it. I don’t know that i even like it especially. But i know it’s amazing, regardless of personal taste.

    And for some damn reason, having never thought anything remotely similar in the past, i find that album cover to be among the, um, “nicest” i’ve saw in some time.

    ie, very sexy, is what.