Filed under: film & dvd, review | Tags: alex ramon, american masters, how sweet the sound, joan baez
How Sweet The Sound ••••
Screened earlier this week on BBC1, this American Masters documentary is now available in an excellent two-disc package which supplements the film with bonus content and a soundtrack CD of live performances. Given Baez’s centrality to American cultural and political life over the past five decades, the most surprising about the documentary is that it wasn’t made much sooner. While Bob Dylan’s career has been the subject of a multitude of docs and bios, essays and retrospectives, Baez’s work – both as artist and activist – has received comparably little scrutiny or contextualisation. Yes, her classic Vanguard albums have been carefully and conscientiously reissued and remastered (and supplemented by comprehensive liner notes by Arthur Levy), but it’s still been over 20 years since the publication of Baez’s autobiography, And A Voice To Sing With, and that book is no longer widely available.
Filed under: album, film & dvd, review, video | Tags: 2009, alex ramon, david rawlings, gillian welch, music
Hell Among The Yearlings ••••
Time (The Revelator) ••••
The Revelator Collection [DVD] ••••
While some new music from Gillian Welch and her steadfast musical partner David Rawlings is long overdue, it’s nonetheless a pleasure to revisit the duo’s earlier work via Acony’s reissue of their first three albums and the international debut release of The Revelator Collection DVD. Welch’s influence on the Americana scene (and beyond) has become increasingly apparent in recent years, both in the wide range of musicians who have chosen to cover her songs and her own collaborations with artists including Emmylou Harris, Jenny Lewis, Ryan Adams, Bright Eyes, Robyn Hitchcock and The Decemberists, not to mention Ane Brun’s recent, reverent tribute song on Changing Of The Seasons [review]. There’s a timeless quality to Welch’s work which clearly appeals across the board, and it’s heartening that even in a noisy culture music as quiet as this can have such a significant impact. From a relatively limited palette of mainly guitar and vocals, Welch and Rawlings have fashioned bluegrass, blues, folk and country traditions into their own distinctive version of what Welch terms “American Primitive” music.
Filed under: album, film & dvd, review | Tags: 2008, charlotte richardson andrews, music, my ruin, tairrie b
Alive On The Other Side ••••
Alive On The Other Side is the diary of an album and a tour that may never have existed. US rockers My Ruin had written the majority of their latest album Throat Full Of Heart and were due to hit the studios to start recording when fate dictated a dangerous change of direction. Lead singer and legendary frontwoman Tairrie B was injured in a near-fatal car crash, resulting in a horrendous arm injury that left her hospitalised for weeks, with the very real possibility of amputation. After enduring months of painful skin grafts and a slow, analgesic-soaked recovery, the singer returned to the studio to record the album that she’d been forcibly estranged from.
Filed under: film & dvd, review | Tags: 2008, alan pedder, artists den, cara dillon, dvd, glen hansard, live, marketa iglova, music, seattle, the frames, the swell season, trevor raggatt
The Swell Season
Live At The Artists Den •••½
The Artists Den
The Redcastle Sessions ••••
The parallels between these two DVD releases extend a little beyond the tenuous link of Irish blood and a folksy sensibility. Both films present their subjects in intimate acoustic mode – The Swell Season (aka ‘Once’ couple Glen Hansard and Markéta Iglová) in a historic church and Cara Dillon in an old converted hospital on the shores of Lough Foyle in Co. Donegal – and both are based on a familiar format. Following in the wake of Patty Griffin’s emotional tour de force, Hansard and Iglová pay a visit to the Artists Den in Seattle, while Dillon succeeds in recreating the formula of BBC4’s ‘The Transatlantic Sessions’ with her idyllic surroundings and liberal scattering of instruments and musicians around a beautifully decorated room.
Filed under: album, film & dvd, review | Tags: 2008, alex ramon, montreux jazz festival, music, tori amos
Live At Montreux 1991/1992 •••••
Eagle Rock Entertainment
This belated but extremely welcome release represents a terrific way to time travel. The latest addition to Eagle Vision’s admirable Live At Montreux series, the DVD pairs one of our favourite piano-pounder’s earliest recorded solo performances at the Swiss festival in 1991 with footage of her return in ’92 – that is, directly pre and post the release of Little Earthquakes. Seventeen – gulp! – years down the line, it’s easy to forget the serious shock and awe that Amos generated when she first appeared on the scene. These performances (previously available only in unofficial audio bootleg form) serve as a potent reminder, and a very valuable record of the first time these now-classic songs met the world. If you thought you’d already had your fill of early Amos then think again: this DVD is a very special item indeed.
Filed under: film & dvd, review | Tags: 2008, charlotte richardson andrews, documentary, dvd, kerri o'kane, mia zapata, music, the gits
Kerri O’Kane (dir.)
The Gits ••••
I discovered The Gits by chance, totally unaware of their story, and immediately fell in love. Raw, melodic punk, fronted by a woman who sounded like the lovechild of Joan Jett and Bessie Smith, I hadn’t heard anything like them. Ever. A little research later, I realised they were more than just an amazing band, they are a chapter in musical history.
Kerri O’Kane’s bittersweet film is one of the most important documentaries of the last decade, a no-frills, down to earth record of a band that changed the world for many people. The Gits were on the cusp of mainstream success, after years of support and loyalty from the Seattle underground, but it was an acknowledgment suffered rather then enjoyed. On July 7th 1993, frontwoman and poet Mia Zapata was raped and murdered by an unknown assailant. The bittersweet beauty of O’Kane’s film is that it is a journey of grief, tragedy and justice. When O’Kane began the project, the crime was an unsolved mystery. As filming commenced, the case was kept alive by an extended community of family, fans and fellow musicians, who raised money for legal fees and campaigned to keep the crime in the media spotlight. Released on the 15th anniversary of Mia’s death, the film documents not only the devastating loss of such a beautiful, talented being, but also the discovery and conviction of her killer over a decade later.
Filed under: album, back issues, film & dvd, live, review | Tags: alan pedder, bjork, chris mccrudden, jacob j stevens, rod thomas
Army Of Me: Remixes & Covers ••
One Little Indian
Anyone familiar with the mammoth Björk merchandising machine giving this latest release a cursory glance might well think that the folks at One Little Indian had one toke too many on the peace pipe. Twenty versions of the same song: have they all gone utterly butterly? Delving very little further than examining the sleeve, however, reveals a more gracious rationale for this newest apparent extortion. Always fiercely protective of her own progeny, to which a certain rather bruised journalist would surely attest, Björk now extends her maternal warmth (via UNICEF) to the children of southeast Asia whose lives were altered dramatically by last year’s Boxing Day tsunami. Indeed, as with past Björk remix projects, dramatic alterations are the order of the day on this bizarre collection. Equal parts a game of kiss chase with the sublime and chicken with the ridiculous, it is at the very least audacious. Ironically, however, the true audacity lies in the song itself, a stern slap on the bum of self-pity – “We won’t save you, your rescue squad is too exhausted…” and so on. Hardly a charitable sentiment is it?
Back in 1995, ‘Army Of Me’ was the lead single from Björk’s second solo album proper, Post, spawning a host of remixes and even a version with her now-defunct ex-labelmates, Skunk Anansie. In fact, the 10-year old song has attracted so much attention from remixers and reinterpreters alike that Björk herself threw down the gauntlet to visitors of her official website to contribute to this project. In less than a fortnight, she was deluged with over 600 responses, and so, having roped in the song’s original collaborator, Graham Massey of 808 State, the two set about what must have been a task both arduous and intriguing. Interestingly, it’s the second time that Björk has harnessed the internet for tracklisting purposes – the website vote for Greatest Hits famously resulted in ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’, her, er, greatest hit, getting swiftly kicked to the curb.
So what of those that made the cut? Only Patrick Wolf, the UK’s very own self-styled libertine folk curio, is instantly recognisable from the list of contributors, all of whom hail from either Europe or North America. The best tracks here are those that keep it mellow and antidotal to the original. French band Grisbi turn in a lovely sultry bossa nova, the UK’s Martin White gets wheezily wistful on the accordion and pan-European consortium Lunamoth capitalise on the marriage of harp and muted electronica best consummated on Björk’s own Vespertine. Predictably, there are at least two versions that hark back to Björk’s early punk bands, Kukl and Tappi Tikkarass, but these are probably best avoided. Likewise with the offerings by the demented Dr Gunni and the clearly piss-taking Messengers Of God, whose country and western adaptation is nothing short of risible.
With a fundraising target of £250,000 within the first 10 days of sale, it’s an ambitious endeavour, though woefully misguided, and it’s unlikely that even diehard Björk fans will want to play this in its entirety more than once. Is it value for money? Not really, but buy it anyway and think of the children.
originally published May 19th, 2005
Medúlla Videos ••••
One Little Indian / Wellhart
Though already widely regarded as a fearless musical innovator, Björk’s 2004 album Medúlla was a chance for the artist to indulge and experiment further than most other ‘mainstream’ acts would dare. From the album’s title inwards (medúlla is Latin for ‘marrow’), Björk was playing on two familiar and favourite themes in her work – nature (specifically of the super kind) and the human voice. Within its inner sanctum, sounds were simply pieces in an ambitious sonic game. As well as Björk’s unearthly singing, we heard breathing, grunting, groaning, snoring, yawning, whispering, whining, and hyperventilation. But Medúlla is more than that; Björk is depicting not just the diversity of the voice, but the body as a whole being, organ and spirit. A possible explanation for this preoccupation with the physical lies in her relationship with art provocateur Matthew Barney. Barney himself has had a life-long heightened awareness of the body, previously working as a medic, model, athlete and physical performance artist in his video art works. Another major influence was Björk’s pregnancy with their daughter, Isadora, during which she says she became “really aware of my muscles and bones.” Although written at the same time, Björk refers to ‘Who Is It’ as being “from a different family” to the songs found on her previous album, Vespertine, which she describes as “introvert and shy and not very physical a record.” Featuring the extraordinary and ‘untreated’ vocals of human beatbox Rahzel of The Roots, the song creates a bridge running deep into the truly physical being of Medúlla. Video director Dawn Shadforth’s treatment places the singer in the surreal and awesome landscape of the barren black sands beneath Hjörleifshöföi, a hill on the southern Icelandic coast. We see her peering out of an eccentric Alexander McQueen dress, tubular and with a wide trunk neck covered in tiny silver bells, weighing in at a hefty 50 kilos. In this simple and sonically separate place, Björk responds directly to the conceptual dress. Appearing animated, she plucks and flicks at her percussive garment. She beats herself voluminously across the dark wide landscape, finally collapsing as if her clockwork cogs have turned to a stop at the final toll of the bell choir. This is Björk literally using her body as an instrument. This is but one of her many video selves. Bjork self-characterizes and uncompromisingly allows video directors to characterize her. She’s been a polar bear, a robot twin, a ghost in the machine and more.
In ‘Oceania’, Björk sings as Mother Ocean, giving voice to the sea itself in what seems to be an ancient poem on the evolution of man. The Lynn Fox Collective’s visual depiction of this humbling tribute shows us the ocean’s dark, mysterious glamour. It is graceful, and in places divine. From the black depths, Björk glides into view, spinning and smouldering in silky threads. She wears a perfectly formed facemask of precious-esque diamond gems as gorgeous close-ups cast out the deep aquatic whispers of her song; however, the film does not seem to do justice to Björk’s imaginative role, failing to depict the power and eloquence of her as a physical embodiment of her chosen oceanic deity. This sentiment was better realised at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, where she commanded the huge opening ceremony wearing a gigantic sea of blue that billowed and opened out toward the crowd.
The Lynn Fox Collective is known for their generous and impressive use of computer-generated imagery and here is no exception. The video depicts a sea-seed’s underwater germination and the upward growth of its stalk from the watery black to the orange glowing air above. We see nature bursting from the water through the air in a sumptuously choreographed display, providing a fitting metaphor for the song’s salute to the story of man as child and ocean as his origin. Although breathtaking and integral, the Collective’s use of CGI seems unreal and lacking the tangible fleshy life of the sea. It seems almost too perfect, yet still gives its depiction of nature a satisfying effect of organized chaos and natural choreography. Throughout the film, jellyfish “dance gracefully, billowing like ballroom dresses” and give graceful and endearing form to the backing of The London Choir. The Collective has worked with Bjork numerous times in the past, and are also responsible for the video for ‘Desired Constellation’, a visual and quite literal representation of Björk’s lyrical conceit of someone’s hands shaking up the stars. Although aesthetically similar, this film is subtler and, quite refreshingly, does not feature Björk.
In ‘Where Is The Line’, we are ushered into a hay-strewn barn where Björk plays a bounding and bulbous straw-sack cartoon chicken. Wobbling around her warm nest, she raises her beanbag body to give birth to a shivering white-skinned, yellow-eyed alien that on exit from her cheesecloth skirt vomits chunky womb fluid and gasps at the dusty air, accentuating the song’s accelerating shrieks and drones. Straw heaps explode and smoke in time to warping warhead pulses, until the white baby retreats and the straw walls take shape to close in on our delirious anti-diva farmyard queen. Although it’s huge fun, at worst the video seems inarticulate and am-dram. But still, it serves as a suitably surreal representation of its manic and sonically sporadic inspiration. More than anything, this video is a small weird window into the mind of director and visual artist Gabriella Fridriksdottír who previously provided artwork for Björk’s Greatest Hits and Family Tree compilations. This outlandish promo is an example of the singer’s generous ability to give the artists she works with a chance to express their own vision without compromise. That Fridriksdottír truthfully represents Björk’s preoccupation with the body, visceral and maternal, as well as the playful and surreal, is testament that their collaborative relationship was genuine and true to form.
While each of these videos is interestingly unorthodox, they have a mutual concern with the body as instrument or vessel. Although ‘Triumph Of A Heart’ has a similar theme, extolling on the heart as “the king of the body”, the promo proves much simpler. Though the vivid imagery of the concept seems a fascinating subject for a pop song and its accompanying music video, director Spike Jonze unfortunately explores little of that potential; however, this video is a genuinely cute and comical story, with occasional fun effects and wry fly on the wall footage. It poses as an everyday tale of a woman and her commitment phobic lover, played by a tabby cat named Nietzsche. After escaping from this slapstick rom-com beginning, Björk gets roaringly inebriated before returning home to her cat-man bruised and disgruntled, but ready to reconcile and dance a feline sphinx-trot in the film’s finale.
If one were to take Björk too seriously, she could seem self-indulgent, incoherent and perhaps downright daft. But I believe she is a dedicated and serious artist. As with her music, if you care to probe deeper into the products of her art and the various influences that have been unified within, you begin to realise that what she creates, both singularly and collaboratively, is part of a big, fast, bright and brilliant way of life. The same is true of Jonze’s video, as proved in a spoof ‘making of’ documentary by Ragnheidur Gestsdottír. In this, we are constantly unaware of what is serious and what is not. Tales are told of personal connections with Björk and the video’s location and props. We hear of the video’s quirky fairytale inspiration and scores of local Icelanders audition to be involved.
Where the other videos in this diverse collection portray Björk as an array of otherworldly characters, allowing her to manifest in herself a vision of fascinating supernatural illogic, Jonze’s video illuminates the humour of both parties, and reminds us that she is, after all, only human. After the rich and sometimes disturbing visual textures of what has gone before, Jonze brings the viewer home to Iceland, intimately including us in a jolly drunken art-bar party scene with Björk in the middle of the action. Ultimately, whatever else it is also concerned with, this video helps us to realise the album as a whole. It is physical and personal, but also uniquely political. It was, she says, a way to counter “stupid American racism and patriotism” after 9/11. “I was saying, what about the human soul? What happened before we got involved in problematic things like civilization and religion and nationality?” In the wake of recent natural disasters, these questions loom ever more importantly.
All issues aside, however, these videos are simply a dream to watch. That the DVD closes with the spoof documentary is a warm waking into a party of all of Medúlla’s colourful collaborators, of Björk’s dreams and of Iceland itself. A party where everyone can be as wild and wonderful as they like and all are invited.
Jacob J Stevens
originally published September 4th, 2005
One Little Indian
For someone who is umpteen albums into a career spanning three decades (four if you count her 1977 Icelandic kiddie pop debut), Björk remains astonishingly chameleonic. The wonderfully leftfield arthouse vocal conceit of Medúlla may have driven away her more casual fans, an effect compounded by the drab and disappointing soundtrack to Matthew Barney’s ‘Drawing Restraint 9’, but Volta is here to remind us how essential and exciting she can be. From the gleeful insanity of the artwork inwards, the energy and freshness Björk brings to the proceedings far surpasses most, if not all, of today’s bright new things.
As is common with her work, there’s an element of deliberate obtuseness. An uneasy equilibrium exists between songs that are littered with arresting images of dissolution and destruction and those that are saturated with beauty and hope. But that’s precisely why it works. Volta is perhaps Björk’s closest examination of the human condition to date, and certainly her most outward looking. Never one to give a simple, one-sided account of anything, here she goes gunning for the entire species, touching equally on its flaws and marvels.
The joyfully apocalyptic march of lead single ‘Earth Intruders’ is her statement of intent and kicks off the album in foreboding fashion. Violent and chaotic lyrics soar across a rumbling backdrop of crunching footfalls, hypnotic beats and spooky echoes with hints of past glories in her extensive back catalogue. There’s the playfulness of ‘Alarm Call’, the darkly militant atmospherics of ‘Army Of Me’ and the ecstatic vitality of ‘Big Time Sensuality’. For a song that seeks justice and explores our own self-destructive appetites it’s surprisingly accessible and irresistibly fun.
As everyone knows by now, ‘Earth Intruders’ was co-produced with innovative beatmaster Timbaland, as was the similarly punchy ‘Innocence’. Harking back to the harsh musical terrains of Homogenic but replacing the strings with tribal grunts and futuristic squelches, it’s a flawless exercise in the art of collaboration and is perhaps the album’s most euphoric moment. It’s hard not to imagine that as she sings “when I once / was innocent / it’s still here / but in different places”, Björk is letting us know that she may have grown up and her music may have matured and evolved but the same spark that drove her early ‘90s flirtations with pop is still there and hasn’t disappeared into some chasm of pretentiousness. Again relating to the palette of human behaviour, ‘Innocence’ suggests that there is still some goodness left somewhere in the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into.
Other songs act as the antithesis to Volta‘s upbeat character. The frankly terrifying ‘Vetebrae By Vertebrae’ is mercilessly brooding. Darker, even, than Vespertine‘s ‘An Echo, A Stain’, this brass-led demon is the sound of hell advancing in the hulking shape of some giant beast. The sheer power of Björk’s vocals is at once devastating and hugely impressive. Then, just as you think you might lose control of your bowels in fear, a smattering of rainfall clears the air, providing just a moment’s respite before the shadowy ‘Pneumonia’ continues the mournful tone with creeping strings in a not too dissimilar vein as the overture from ‘Dancer In The Dark’.
If Björk sounds troubled on the stunning ‘I See Who You Are’, it’s because she’s confronting the unshakeable bond between mother and daughter in the context of everyone’s inevitable mortality. In tone it’s not a million miles away from ‘Sun In My Mouth’, only less glacial, more warm-blooded and spiritual. Diverse ethnic instruments clatter and twang all over the place; Björk finally goes jungle, but not quite how the ravers might have wanted.
Two songs feature Antony Hegarty of ‘that incredible voice’ fame – ‘Dull Flame Of Desire’ and ‘My Juvenile’ – but though his vocals are almost perfectly complimentary and his presence unmistakeable, these songs, too, belong to Björk. ‘Dull Flame…’ is slightly plodding at first but soon catches fire while album closer ‘My Juvenile’ will knock the breath right out of your lungs. Elsewhere, ‘Hope’, ‘Wanderlust’ and the ‘Pluto’-like soundclash of ‘Declare Independence’ are magnificent inclusions. Indeed, as you’ve probably gathered by now, Volta has no weak links. It’s an incredible album of twisted, intelligent pop with an experimental orchestral base and probably her most outstanding album to date. Of course, that tag has had several airings throughout her career, but this time you owe it yourself to take it literally.
Volta, above any other, shows just how immeasurable her talents are as performer, writer and composer. Quite simply, it will floor you. That’s not to say it’s an easy listen or necessarily all that immediate, but then you wouldn’t really expect that of her now, would you?
Live at Connect Festival, Argyll •••••
September 2nd, 2007
Inverary Castle, not so much a Medieval fortification as a curlicued Victorian folly tucked into the Scottish wilderness, seems like a fitting venue for a Björk performance. Her best work, which has always aimed to fuse the synthetic with the elemental, erects rich and strange musical structures in unexpected places. From plumbing clubland’s hidden depths in Debut, through to finding a voice for global geopolitics in Volta, she has played with many themes while being something else entirely. An original.
The Björk who takes the stage at Scotland’s underpopulated (and muddy) Connect festival looks every bit the princess of ‘kook’ her Spitting Image puppet would lead you to expect. Her cloak and headdress combination makes her look equal parts Shere Khan and the Wicked Queen from ‘Snow White’. From the moment she strikes up with ‘Innocence’ however, all suggestion we’re in for an evening of ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’ era Disney-ish camp are dispelled as she and her band effortlessly recreate the dense, complex soundscape of her sixth studio album. Her fusion of visual spectacle and musical invention was reinforced by an astonishing version of ‘Hunter’, re-arranged for the all-female Icelandic Wonderbrass ensemble, which culminates in streams of ribbons exploding from her sleeves.
From here, Björk continues on a career retrospective set which mirrors her own artistic journey by carving its own tricksy and unexpected path through her records. Avoiding the familiar hits of Debut and Post in favour of songs such as ‘Hidden Place’ and ‘Pagan Poetry’ from 2001’s Vespertine, she capably translates her intensely private language of this period into the public sphere. The festival environment also proves a perfect fitting for material from Homogenic, perhaps her most artistically coherent work, ‘Immature’ and ‘Jóga’ in particular sounding every bit as rugged and volatile as the Icelandic landscape that inspired them while lending Connect’s Argyll setting an air of the Nordic.
The set also gives lovers of Björk’s experimental dance and electro side something to be cheerful about, with collaborator Damian Taylor putting some of the more well-worn songs through an acid house mincer. In his hands ‘I Miss You’ is recast as nu-rave salsa, and he engineers an audacious bridge between ‘Hyberballad’ and ‘Pluto’ that smashes one of Björk’s most delicate songs to bits before reassembling it as one of her most sonically challenging. The surprise of the evening, however, goes to recent single ‘Earth Intruders’; a song that was somewhat too dense and quirky to really work on record is a revelation live. Given air and space its occasionally crowded beats make sudden sense and provide the rabble rousing high point of the concert.
When finally propelled back on to the stage to thunderous applause for an encore, she closes with a two-song coda that blends old and new Björk seamlessly. Backed by Wonderbrass, ‘Anchor Song’ could have been lifted straight from its incarnation on Debut, whereas ‘Declare Independence’ (which she mischievously dedicates to the spirit of Scottish nationalism) shows that while her journey away from pop into more inscrutable territories may have baffled some, her power to move dancing feet is undiminished. Connect Festival itself may have felt like a damp squib end to a rather soggy summer, but Björk herself is never less than incendiary.