wears the trousers magazine


björk: voltaïc (2009)
June 21, 2009, 11:32 am
Filed under: album, review, video | Tags: , , ,

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Björk
Voltaïc ••••
One Little Indian

Has it really been two years since Björk’s last album, Volta, landed on our planet? How time flies. As every Björk album has proved, however, whatever instant appeal they may or may not have had for some peoples’ tastes, they tend to need time to ferment and are usually best judged on reflection. This is normally aided by the arrival of another new album, but after two years’ solid touring for Volta and her recent campaigning for economic and ecological stability in her home country, the world’s most famous Icelander is taking some well deserved time off before putting together her next release. This does leave Volta hanging in the balance slightly, and if ever there was a Björk album that perhaps needed a little more explanation, reflection or analysis, it’s this one.

Originally hyped to be something of a commercial return to pop (thanks to the cautiously anticipated collaborations with Timbaland), Volta was indeed the most consistently melodic and vibrant Björk has sounded on record for some time, but by no means was it any less angular, experimental or exotic than its immediate predecessors. Not only this, but Volta was to become a very conscious experiment on her behalf to redress the balance between her studio time and her stage time. Having not toured since 2003 was clearly something that was going to be remedied with the release of Volta. The album was a blueprint; almost a preamble for the epic live circus that was to follow. Its production was kept surprisingly basic, despite the usual amount of stellar collaborators, and the instantly catchy singles and chillingly haunting moments aside, it did feel a little unfinished in places. Then again, what’s the point in reading the book if the plot is revealed in the introduction?

Kicking off even before Volta‘s release, the tour would span over 18 months and prove to be her most colourful, vibrant, energetic and solid to date, formulated with a wonderfully diverse cast of musicians who could breathe enough life into the material for it to evolve over the tour and reach emotional and sonic areas that just weren’t possible on the record itself. The plot continued to thicken as each gig introduced new beats, arrangements, special guests, and more outrageous hats and colourful costumes than a Christmas panto. Those who experienced the shows will no doubt have found something ‘new’ in the Volta material to relish. But those who never had the pleasure of attending may still be left only with a CD from 2007 that “was good. But, but, but…” Cue the release of Voltaïc, a 2CD/2DVD boxset collection that finally brings Volta to a prolific (and yes, elaborately packaged) close, and may fill in the blanks for her more nitpicky, detail-obsessive fans.

Although Volta‘s “commercial return to pop” wasn’t exactly an accurate description, the tracks were at least toe-tapping enough for great potential in other guises. Over the course of the album’s five (yes, elaborately packaged) singles, they were reincarnated several times over with more floor-filling remixes than you could shake a glowstick at – these are compiled on one of Voltaïc‘s CDs. While giving the likes of Simian Mobile Disco, Modeselektor, Sinden and Alvo Noto free reign on Volta made sense and was largely successful, there’s simply not enough of anything else among these remixes to satisfy those fans who’ve come to expect a Björk remix to be something of a new life form of its own. Despite Ghostigital, Matthew Herbert and Ratatat coming up trumps with some wickedly unique takes on ‘Declare Independence’ and ‘Wanderlust’, even the only previously unreleased mix here (an utterly chaotic and tribal dereliction of ‘Declare Independence’ by Black Pus) can’t make a whole disc of what is essentially 70 minutes of trendy electro any more memorable. You can’t help but wonder what might have been if Matmos had been given ‘Innocence’ to dissect, or if Ensemble had been given ‘The Dull Flame Of Desire’ to recompose.

While we’re at it, the other quibble with this collection comes from the second DVD, a collection of all five official promo videos from the album, as well as all 10 runner-up videos for ‘Innocence’ from the competition held for fans to create the official clip. While Volta may be her first era to be notably hit by ever decreasing music video budgets, Björk does not let that get in the way of the creativity behind her landmark visuals. While ‘Earth Intruders’ and ‘Declare Independence’ get modest but effective visuals from some major league directors (Michael Ocelot and Michel Gondry, resurrecting his promo video career one last time for his seventh Björk video), ‘Innocence’ and ‘The Dull Flame Of Desire’ are left with nice but nonetheless amateur screensavers. Although the work that went into these by the eager fans who were especially invited was obviously immense and should be commended, they simply stick out like sore thumbs and are hard to acknowledge as visuals that will stand the test of time next to her back catalogue.

This is only made more apparent by the mind-blowing video for ‘Wanderlust’ by Encyclopaedia Pictura, an eight-minute, yak-riding, 3D whitewater epic that rivals Chris Cunningham’s mighty ‘All Is Full Of Love’ for her best ever promo. All the stops were well and truly yanked out for this one, ensuring that it well and truly pisses all over the parade of the others from this era. Aside from two cute making-of videos for ‘Declare Independence’ and ‘Wanderlust’, the 10 runner-up demo videos for ‘Innocence’ are simply unnecessary (they didn’t win at the end of the day) and would have made space for a welcome ‘making of’ the album documentary instead, for example. All told, this DVD sadly does little to ease the niggles many people have had in the back of their mind about how uneven the entire Volta album experience threatened to be remembered for.

However, let us not forget the point of the album: touring. As we move to the first CD and first DVD of Voltaïc, it suddenly becomes apparent that the crafty little Icelander has done it again. Here, we finally receive first-hand evidence of the real triumph of Volta, and it is indeed glorious. CD1 finds Björk and her Volta touring band setting up camp at London’s Olympic Studios for a live recording of the reworked tour versions of songs both old and new. ‘Earth Intruders’ is given more substance and less chaos with added brass and backing vocals, while Post‘s mid-’90s ode to Europop, ‘I Miss You’, is seamlessly brought forward 14 years with a glossy, glitchy trip-hop make over. Medúlla‘s ‘Pleasure Is All Mine’ is given actual instruments, taking the track to even more eerie places than its a cappella predecessor, and even the relatively simple idea of swapping out the strings on Homogenic‘s ‘Hunter’ and replacing them with brass really brings out a whole new character to the song. Throughout the session, Björk has never sounded more alive and exciting.

It’s over on the main DVD, however, we really get spoilt rotten, and get to truly experience the Volta that Björk perhaps had pictured in her head from the very start. ‘Live In Paris’ is a 17-track cut from her June 2008 show at the beautiful hug-shaped Olympia theatre. From the vibrant flags bobbing around the stage, to the pyrotechnics and confetti cannons, this tour was as live as Volta could ever have dreamed of being. As well as the album’s signature brass band and electronics, joining the circus on stage were Chris Corsano on drums and percussion, Jonas Sen on harpsichord and organs, and Damien Taylor and all the cutting edge sequencing gadgets you could wish for to complement Mark Bell’s laptop wizardry. For every sonic cherry on top, there was icing on top of that.

‘Wanderlust’ is given something of a live remix that only adds to the urgency of its tale. ‘Vertebrae By Vertebrae’, too, is given more character and meat on its B-movie-themed bones than it ever had on record, while finale ‘Declare Independence’ pushes the brass section and drums to extremes as the crowd mosh their way through the ribbons of paper falling from the ceiling. (It’s worth noting that many of them are waving small Tibetan flags in the wake of Björk’s controversial performance in China a few months earlier that had caused political uproar.) The highlights, though, lie where the old meets the new as a flawless ‘Hyperballad’ turns dramatically into a furious cover of Mark Bell’s own LFO killer ‘Freak’. However, it’s ‘Who Is It’ that really steals the show, combining an all-new brass arrangement for the song with delicate electronic and percussive touches, all elements working flawlessly together.

After 18 months of such an inventive, boundary disintegrating circus, it’s no wonder that afterwards Björk felt the more tender moments on Volta might have been a little under-represented. And so, with next to no warning, she hired a church in Reykjavík for a beautiful mini concert specifically to give those quieter moments a chance to shine. Backed by the brass band, a choir, Jonas Sen on church organ and harpsichord, and Mark Bell joining on beats for just one song (the first ever live airing of Medúlla‘s ‘Mouth’s Cradle’), barely 150 lucky customers who had braved the cold Icelandic air were treated to a brief set that gives full warmth to the likes of ‘My Juvenile’ and ‘Pneumonia’, and finally gives them the space to breathe that Volta never quite managed. As Björk totters around in a gold sequined dress, the sheer power in her voice that many probably take for granted when it’s buried beneath the electronics and instruments, is completely unleashed. Even on DVD, the effect, when combined with the warmth and precision of church architecture, is hair-raising stuff. And with one last modest curtsey and “takk!”, the Volta era was finally brought to a close.

Voltaïc perhaps represents Volta a little too well. For many fans, the album itself was just too incohesive for even a mighty tour to justify, even if that was largely the point behind it. Voltaïc certainly highlights the slight conflict that Volta seemed to have with itself regarding marketing its ‘commercial appeal’ through remixes that were probably a good idea at the time, and a little too much creative input from fans, as none of it ever seemed to work in unison with the album at the end of the day. Volta was in no way a bad album, it was simply unfinished. But, the tour! The glorious tour! That is what it was all about. Voltaïc‘s live selections have now documented the completion of that story, and what a page turner it turned out to be. While two years is a long time to ask any fan to wait for final resolution, as with everything that Björk releases, there’s method behind the madness. And while the madness might get ever more elaborate, along with the packaging, the method makes for quite a ride. Especially when the finale is as ultimately and aesthetically gratifying as Voltaïc.

Léigh Bartlam
UK release date: 29/06/09; www.myspace.com/bjork

‘Wanderlust’ [live in Paris]

‘Who Is It’ [live in Paris]

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[…] 14/5] 12 Maria Taylor – Ladyluck / O+S – O+S [Alan Pedder 12/4] 13 Björk – Voltaïc [Léigh Bartlam 21/6] 14 Jenny Owen Youngs – Transmitter Failure [Daniel Clatworthy 25/5] 15 […]

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