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Sunday, 18 March 2012

~Kitten Wine#32~: Bjork Is A Four Letter Word

One of the greatest mysteries of my musical fandom is the fact that I have never appeared to sing the praises of Bjork Gudmundsdottir, even at a time when people knew I was a huge admirer of her work, and carried the burning torch of infatuation for her.
The thing is, I have actually been a fan of her work for close on thirty years now, although admittedly there was a time when I owned her records but didn't have a clue who she was. How so?, I don't hear you ask. Well let's take a look at the musical output of the woman who really should be my female Morrissey, and we'll see how it all fits into place....
Back in the 1980s I, like so many of my friends, were guilty of purchasing records purely because they were on a certain record label; Sarah, Factory, Creation and, especially in the early eighties, Crass. Any record that came in a black and white wraparound sleeve with the familiar Crass font, would be almost immediately snapped up. Whether we'd heard the record, or even heard of the band, didn't make the slightest bit of difference. And that, my friends, is how I came to end up with 'The Eye', a 7" Crass release by a band called KUKL(which translates as 'sorcery'). I never really twigged that they were Icelandic, just that they must be foreign given their unusual moniker and their even more unusual bandmember names; Stigtryggur Baldurson? What gives??
I wish I could portray myself as unbearably smug and claim that even back in 1984 I knew Bjork was in for a stellar career, but in truth I hardly played the record. It was too scratchy, scrapey and skronky and featured some ranting mad bloke (Einar Orn Benediktsson) and a girl who sounded like a sexually frustrated whale (our heroine of the piece).

A year or so later there followed an album 'Holidays In Europe' which I bought, purely out of curiosity, played once and filed away in the 'won't be playing that mad bollocks again' box. The album was set out like a trip round Europe, each song had a two-part title; one which gave the name of a place, the other which I expect was supposed to describe what happened in the said destination.
Years later I can now listen to the album and it doesn't sound too extreme, but back in the day it was like being assaulted by, not so much the loony on the bus, but a whole busload of loonies.

Then, one day in 1987, John Peel played 'Birthday' by a band called The Sugarcubes.....

It was incredible!
Everyone I know went mad for this amazing sounding record. We gathered en masse to celebrate this extraordinary beast and all proclaimed in unison, "That girl's voice is AMAZING!!!". I wish I could have been way ahead of the pack an immediately claimed that, of course, I'd been following her career for years, but it still didn't click that this was the same singer from KUKL. In fact it WAS KUKL, just with a different name, a different label, and a more commercial sound. Well....'slightly' more commercial; it was still weird, and still had that mad bloke ranting and parping his trumpet all over the tracks, but it WAS radio-friendly.
It was in an interview in the NME that it all fell into place. Singer Bjork had been a child star in Iceland, even releasing an album.

She was then part of Crass's only Icelandic signings KUKL....KUKL!!!! Of course! That's why I thought there was something strangely familiar about the sound.
Then, in mid 1987, our local watering hole became part of an experiment in in-pub video entertainment. At this point in time, pubs weren't really allowed to broadcast MTV as it broke the Entertainment Licencing Law, so some brewers chains got together and compiled video compilations of the latest music videos so that they could broadcast them in their pubs. One of the first of these compilations featured the second single by The Sugarcubes, 'Cold Sweat', and this was the first time I ever saw Bjork!

The effect was heart-stopping! I was smitten like never before over a pop-star(Griff: except Morrissey!!). I though she looked incredible. Without sounding xenophobically patronising, she was like a cute Icelandic pixie, like someone from another world. I embarrassed myself somewhat by lending my mate Gary an album only for him to tell me "Aye, the album's quite good, but why was the inner sleeve stuffed with pictures of that burd fae The Sugarcubes?" I'd lent him an album where I'd stashed my pictures of Bjork cut out from the magazines. Oops!

The Sugarcubes would go on to be the Indie darlings of the next few years, and while I always felt more a fan of Bjork rather than her band, I never though they were quite as great as they could have been. But it was while in The Sugarcubes that Bjork delivered the first of two of my favourite vocals by anyone in the history of music at any time, and in any genre....

Now, if in the first six months of 1989 you had asked me to compile my Top 10 Favourite Songs Of All Time, somewhere, probably in the Top 5, would be 'Deus' by The Sugarcubes. I absolutely LOVED this song, and was one of those rare records that I practically rushed home from work just to hear it. Any song that questions, or even denies the existence of God in it's opening line("Deus does not exist!") is pretty cool with me. Even the fact that Einar mutters on about God's existence("I once met him//He just sideburns and quiff!") doesn't spoil the song because OF COURSE God is going to have sideburns and a quiff!!

All these years on, I still think this is a remarkable song and Bjork's voice is the perfect blend of sexy and scary that she came to master over the years.
The Sugarcubes trundled on until the early 90s, never really capturing the imagination of those first few releases, but always good to have around. I remember Griff once phoning me to tell me that I should check out the inner sleeve of their album 'Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week' as you could see down Bjork's top in the picture. I'm sure he'll deny this completely(Griff: I deny this completely!), but he hoists himself with his own politically correct petard.

Bjork's solo debut album(if you don't count the one she made as a child), 'Debut' is another album that virtually everyone I know owns. We all expected it to be her first fully brilliant release, now that Einar was out of the picture, but in truth it only works for about 80%. Lead off single 'Human Behaviour' was outstanding as was the giant teddy bear video that accompanied it. And 'Venus As A Boy' was a thing of shimmering beauty, but there were an awful lot of songs that felt incomplete. There was also the track 'Big Time Sensuality' whose video had Bjork tweeing about in the back of a truck with a silly hair-do. I always felt that this video ushered in the horrible 'Bjork-as-quirky-cartoon-character' persona that hung around her for the rest of her career.

And things didn't improve with the release of her second album 'Post' which contained the execrable hit single 'It's Oh So Quiet' which further dented her image as a serious performer. This also led to Bjork becoming lumped in with the whole dinner-party set; you know, Yuppies who throw dinner parties and have Dido or M People or Beverly Knight as background music to show their hip and down with the kids. The same people who hijack Amy Winehouse or Adele. Bjork was now their kooky conversation piece. I think this is why I often felt loathe to sing her praises while I was still a huge fan.

From about this point onwards, Bjork has actually released a stream of fine albums, all of which I have and all of which I enjoy immensely. After those two early solo albums, her choice of musical styles and collaborators has changed and she has finally hit a seam of inspiration we all knew in the early days she possessed. She toured, backed by lo-fi Electronica duo Matmos AND an all female Inuit choir, resulting in some of the most magical live shows imaginable.
She even turned in a remarkable acting performance on Lars Von Trier's exceptional film 'Dancer In The Dark'. Bjork also contributed the songs for the film, garnering her an Oscar nomination, and another performance-from-another-planet when she turned up dressed as a swan, complete with egg. She delivered a powerful version of the song at the award ceremony but sadly lost out to a song that couldn't lace her Doc Martens.

It was during her solo career that she delivered the second of my favourite vocal performances of all time. It's from her 1997 album 'Homogenic' and is a track that many of her fans, including myself often call 'State Of Emergency', although it's actual title is 'Joga'. This song came out as I was coming to the end of my most insular bout of depression, and it was like one of those moments when you first see the sun rise above the horizon. It was like someone enveloping me in a velvet glove and saying that everything was going to be alright again. Not many songs ever broke through that pitch black veneer, but it was always going to be something powerful by someone I had always harboured emotional feelings for....she hit me and it felt like a kiss!

And here is a live version complete with strings by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra:

As I write this, the only release of Bjork's that I don't yet own is her latest album 'Biophillia', and that's only because it's been released in multiple variations of packaging, something that you'll know by my recent Blogs annoys the shit out of me. BUT....I may now, in the wake of this posting, download the album sans any packaging and just have the songs.
Given that they're by Bjork, they'll be all I need....


You can download KUKL's EP 'The Eye' here

And their 'Holdays In Europe' album here

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