Kevin "Moondog" O'Toole
My Ratings Pledge
You will not see this column cluttered-up with complaints
about awful music. If it's worth me writing about it, I will write
about it here. The ratings for this column will be between *** (three
stars) meaning "Worth a shot" and ***** (five stars) meaning, "Damn,
don't you have this already? What's the matter with you?" Another
thing: since I end up dividing my free time between music and films
(as well as other occasional media), this column will no longer
just be about music. It will probably just as often be about films,
but no longer just music. As such, I will feel free occasionally
to kibitz (though perhaps only at year end) about some of the worst
movies out there, as well as the best. Oh, and the column title?
What, didn't you know there was a depression on? Whadda you kids
doin'? Unplug yer pods fer a minute and read up!
Bjork is a thirty year veteran of the recording
industry. A little known fact folks, but, yep, she was once the
Icelandic equivalent of Avril Lavigne. After her popular Icelandic
debut at age 12, she developed a healthy interest in punk and the
new wave when the "new" meant something. She found still more success
with the Sugarcubes, an Icelandic pop band where her trademark vocal
dynamics first came to the attention of Western audiences. Following
a jazz-trio-with-vocal album (look up the reasonably available "Gling-Glo"
(1990)), she set out on the unique solo carreer path that we know
her for with "Debut" (1992), where her collaborations with Massive
Attack producer Nellee Hooper and Jazz arranger Oliver Nelson combined
with her post new-wave sensibilities to create a singular new creative
sound, one that few of her contemporaries (perhaps Beck and Radiohead)
have matched. Because she has set the bar so high, and, often, so
far out in left-field, there are those who see every new Bjork project
arrive wrapped in a question mark. Can she match the cool dance/
pop mix of "Debut," or the variety show full of show tunes, would-be
James Bond and tasty house music goulash that was "Post," or the
ambient frosty noise textures of "Homogenic," or the music-box/
gregorian retro tech of "Vespertine," or the... well, "Medulla"
actually was a slight disappointment, though it's certainly the
kind of disappointment more young artists should aspire to. (And,
no, I have not yet heard the soundtrack to her partner Messr. Barney's
Drawing Restraint 9, though the sounds of Japanese whaling vessels
may have been recorded on that trip for use on Bjork's latest. Keep
reading) I suppose that if you have not taken an interest in Bjork
yet, you may find her latest, "Volta" (Elektra, May, 2007, ****1/2),
equally confounding or distancing. For you, non-fan, perhaps you
need to return to her album "Post" for further listening while us
fans aprreciate the sonic feast available on her new disc. You should
return to this album quickly, however. It's definitely worth the
trip. You will probably also detect a tone of frustration with current
world politics in her writing, yielding tunes like "Declare Independence,"
one of a couple of new pieces with her "Post" collaborator Mark
Bell. If you want to know what to expect, think of Bjork trying
to do Atari Teenage Riot; only she makes it work. "Volta" opens
with "Earth Intruders", a Timbaland-aided fantasy of the spirit
of the Earth as an invading army of goodness, buffeted by distorted
beats and an mbira/gamalan-like midi-chorus in lock step behind
her march. After the tune fades, a chorus of huge ship horns and
sounds bring us to "Wanderlust.." "Wanderlust" finds Bjork employing
brass that recalls her "Selmasongs" album, as well as the anthemic
tone of "Post"'s "Hyper-ballad," in a song about trying to set sail
away from societal restrictions. "Dull Flame of Desire" begins with
brass tones that knowingly recall Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Climb
Ev'ry Mountain" from "The Sound of Music." Bjork is joined here
by the strange trilling/crooning of Antony Hegarty of Antony and
the Johnsons. That tune's delicate duet is demolished by the gut-punch
beats of the album's second Timbaland collaboration, "Innocence,"
an ode to change, or coming of age if you want. "I See Who You Are"
is a shimmering delicate song about... well, gettin' down in the
best Carpe Diem tradition("let us celebrate now all this flesh on
our bones" she cries). Min Xiao-fen contributes pipa to Bjork's
passionate vocal and brass arrangements, with Mark Bell contributing
ambient loops and soft beats. "Vertebrae by Vertebrae" and " Pneumonia"
continue with the moody orchestral and brass textures. "Vertebrae
by Vertebrae" is a piece of creeping horror as Bjork finds her "arms
creeping out of (her) shoulders." "Pneumonia" is a weepy piece about
coping with and moving beyond grief. "Hope" is another Timb/jork
track, which finds Bjork musing over the nature of evil, positing
a suicide bomber who may be either: a) pregnant or b) faking a pregnancy.
Timbaland throws down rhythms with an Indian influence, under a
spare arrangement featuring Toumani Diabate on kora. It ends with
more of the boat chorus from "Earth Intruders," leading into "Declare
Independce" The album's last piece is another Bjork/ Antony duet,
"My Juvenile" which features Antony as "the conscience" and Jonas
Sen on clavichord. (Interestingly, on this album, the Chinese pipa,
the Malian kora and the clavichord are a little difficult to tell
apart, which I beleive the divine Ms. Gundmundsdottir quite intended).
"Volta" marks as much of a return to Bjork's pop form (circa 1995)
as we are likely to see, but I'm okay and better than okay with
that. When unpredictable blasts of creativity become the norm (as
with most of Bjork's output), some people tend to mistake the unpredictable
for the predictable. Please don't take this album, or Bjork, for
Joni Mitchell has been a prescence
on my musical landscape for as long as I can remember. I have two
older sisters who, during the seventies, followed her closely...
well, until she really went nuts with the jazz stuff, huh? That's
where my own eighties musical explorations came in. By then, the
depth of Joni Mitchell's back catalogue got to be a well kept secret.
among people like Prince, and I went back to re-discover not only
albums like "Blue" and "Court and Spark," but also "Hejira," "Mingus"
and "Shadows and Light," (the last being a great live album wrapping
up her era of collaborations with bassist Jaco Pastorius, who died
in 1987. The album also featured guitarist Pat Metheny and his frequent
keyboardist Lyle Mays). remember her surprise appearance at the
Conspiracy of Hope concert at Giants Stadium in 1986 which was broadcast
on live TV. I remember it because of what I felt was appalling behavior
from the crowd. She was sandwiched, perhaps unwisely, between a
set from Peter Gabriel (in his "Sledgehammer" era) and U2 (between
"The Unforgettable Fire" and "The Joshua Tree"), and performed three
songs before leaving the stage as the crowd was screaming "U2" in
such a way that it could only be heard as "boo." I remember Ms.
Mitchell reacting by saying something like, "Hey, I'm not the bomb,
you dig?" I mention these phases of hipness that Joni Mitchell's
music has travelled thru only to point out that, despite it all,
she and her music are still with us, and still sticks with us and
generations of fans. Some of Joni Mitchell's work can be hard to
transform into a decent cover, one would think, because her original
deliveries are both desparately revered by fans and uniquely her
own. (Not that that has kept people from covering "Both Sides Now"
over 500 times (!), according to Joni Mitchell's official site)
The new A Tribute to Joni Mitchell (Various Artists,
Nonesuch, April 2007, ****) gathers some of each generation since
Joni Mitchell arrived on the scene. While it's a bit of a drag to
note that some of these covers are recycled from other collections,
they are well selected and fit this set well: Prince's "A Case of
You" (taken from his 2002 live album) is delivered with soul and
affection; Sarah McLachlan's "Blue" (last seen on her rarities and
b-sides collection) is delivered with her trademark haunted passion;
Annie Lennox's "Ladies of the Canyon" was originally a 1995 b-side
to "No More I Love You's." James Taylor's Christmas album cover
of the fairly ubiquitous "River" ends the album, not badly... but
could they not have commissioned another new recording to wind it
up? The album opens strongly with midwestern chamber-pop maestro
Sufjan Stevens taking on "Free Man in Paris" lyrically, while musically
reconstructing the original's jazz poetry as if he was channelling
Burt Bacharach in a weird mood. Spare brass and strings accompany
poppy rhythm work and Stevens' breathy deadpan vocal. Bjork nearly
matches oddness as she takes on "The Boho Dance" (from Mitchell's
perhaps unjustly neglected "The Hissing of Summer Lawns") accompanied
only by Guy Sigworth on celeste, which is looped and processed in
a complex whirling dance around her intimate vocals. Caetano Veloso
is almost the obvious choice to take on the polyrhythmic "Dreamland,"
which he develops into a still funkier piece of samba pop even than
the original, which appeared on Mitchell's sprawling "Don Juan's
Reckless Daughter," as well as the live "Shadows and Light." Cassandra
Wilson is a fellow veteran, with creator Sarah McLachlan, of the
Lilith Fair tours which celebrated that wonderful surge of great
female pop artists in the mid-to-late nineties, and surely every
artist from those tours owes a debt to Mitchell's very singular
carreer path. Wilson offers her version of "For the Roses," reconnecting
the more folky singer songwrting Mitchell with the jazzy acoustic
sound Wilson delivers so well. Wilson's own "New Moon Daughter"
is perhaps the equal of any of Joni Mitchell's recordings. Another
welcome addition (always) is luxury car shill and master performer-songwriter
Elvis Costello, putting across a wind/ brass sextet enhanced quartet
(all together a...dectet...?) version of "Edith and the Kingpin."
This Mitchell penned pulp fiction tale of obsessive attraction between
a bigshot gangster and young Edith could easily be set in the same
world as Costello's "Clubland," and Costello is a very able reinterpreter
for this, another tune originally from "Hissing." Emmylou Harris
reaches into latter Mitchell for her cover of "The Magdelene Laundries"
from the Grammy winning album, "Turbulent Indigo." West Hartford's
own jazz pianist Brad Meldhau (well known for dipping into the eclectic
rock songbook with his covers of Radiohead songs) performs an instrumental
version of Mitchell's poetic religious critique, "Don't Interrupt
the Sorrow." Rounding out the list of pop admirers on this collection
is k.d. lang who is more than equal to the task of delivering the
breezy, sighing "Help Me." It may be quibbling of me to point out
the opportunities for new recordings passed up in favor of re-releases...
okay, it is quibbling. Get this album and dig you some Joni! She's
not the bomb, you dig? __________________________________________________________
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