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Thursday, August 7, 2014

Björk: Björk

BJÖRK: BJÖRK (1977)

1) Arabadrengurinn; 2) Búkolla; 3) Alta Mira; 4) Jóhannes Kjarval; 5) Fúsi Hreindýr; 6) Himnaför; 7) Óliver; 8)  Álfur Út Úr Hól; 9) Músastiginn; 10) Bænin.

12-year old Björk Guðmundsdóttir is calmly, but warily gazing at us from the album cover, wrapped up in silks and surrounded by a background that seems to be coming straight out of somebody's not-too-imaginative visual idea of 1001 Nights. As you turn on the music, the quiet sounds of crickets and night birds are soon joined by mysterious sitars and sarods, almost like at the beginning of George Harrison's ʽLove You Toʼ. «Oh that sweet enchantress Björk», you think to yourself, «such an idealistic visionary already at such a tender age... sure this is manneristic and derivative, but to dabble in Indian and Near Eastern influences while most of her schoolmates were probably up to their necks in the Osmonds or ABBA...» And then it actually begins.

Not a lot of people have even heard of this album, let alone heard the actual music (for obvious reasons, it has never been officially released on CD), and they have not missed much. It was re­corded almost by accident: some people at a local Icelandic record label heard the girl singing Tina Charles' ʽI Love To Loveʼ on the radio and offered her a contract for a children's album. With the aid of her stepfather and a bunch of local musicians, they scrambled together a bunch of pop songs, translated them into Icelandic, so that even local kids who didn't excel at their English lessons could get into the groove, and put them out on a market targeted at... honestly, I have no idea who the people in that market are, and I would probably be afraid and embarrassed to socia­lize with any of them, anyway.

Nevertheless, all great artists eventually make people interested in checking out their history, and even if it is completely worthless on its own, Björk offers some educational value. The key as­pect is the singing, of course. As these ten songs show, Björk is a perfect natural: her range and tone here are already as strong as on her «mature» albums (they didn't offer her that contract just for cuteness' sake, after all), and all that is missing is the result of training — the punk attitude had not caught up with the girl yet, nor did the avantgarde jazz stylistics, so she is simply copying the note patterns of her favorite singers and sifting them through her childish, wildish, not par­ticularly well-disciplined soprano. Subtlety does not exist as of yet, as you can most clearly see in her take on ʽThe Fool On The Hillʼ (ʽÁlfur Út Úr Hólʼ), done technically well, but «oversung»: the girl simply has a bigger voice than she can properly handle at the moment, and the cover suffers from superfluous screechiness.

Musically, the arrangements are all over the place, but with a permanent emphasis on cuteness: «kiddie disco», «kiddie ska», «kiddie jazz-pop», «kiddie bossa nova», etc. The lyrics are not always direct translations: for instance, ʽBúkollaʼ, despite being based on Stevie Wonder's ʽYour Kiss Is Sweetʼ, has been turned into an ode to... a magic cow ("I took a hair from your tail...." and, apparently, mixed it with a good dose of Icelandic volcanic mushrooms). The vocal delive­ries generally have that annoying «giddy-up» drive to them which is a typical attribute of most «children's albums» — which makes it all the more amazing and exciting that, in a way, Björk has managed to retain it in her «mature» years.

In fact, there is no way that we could ever assess Björk the same way as the average Icelandic buyer could assess it back in 1977 — for us, hearing her lively «get-up-and-jump» notes on ʽAlta Miraʼ or ʽOliverʼ will always trigger associations with, at the very least, the Björk of ʽThere's More To Life Than Thisʼ or ʽIt's Oh So Quietʼ or any of those hell-raising romps of the early part of her adult career. Even though, other than the voice itself, the only thing that her adult career has in common with this tripe is diversity and unpredictability.

Speaking of which, the album also has two instrumental compositions, one of which (ʽJohannes Kjarvalʼ), dedicated to an Icelandic painter, is a simple, but effective flute-led folk ditty with a fast waltz bridge, with Björk herself playing the flute — deserving, I would imagine, an admiring pat on the head from Ray Thomas, whose Moody Blues style of playing could easily serve as a source of inspiration (probably not, but then there is no reason why Björk should not have had access to classic Moody Blues records); the second one, ʽMúsastiginnʼ, is also dominated by the flute but a little bit more «martial» and Brit-poppy. Both unquestionably show the beginnings of a serious composing talent, although their chief virtue is that of providing brief respites from the girlscout vocal model.

Ultimately, the best thing that can probably be said about the album is that, after it actually managed to sell some copies in Iceland, Björk found the inner strength to refuse the proposal to record a second one in the same vein — instead, she used the money to get herself a piano and begin to study on a more serious level. Although it does make one wonder how the girl would have fared if they'd managed to mold her into an early Icelandic role model for Britney Spears...

3 comments:

  1. Awesome, you're starting up the Björk reviews. I've never heard this album, but your description of it basically cements my idea of how it would sound. I should check it out one of these days, though, as a historical curio.

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    1. Also, what exactly do you mean by 'Músastiginn' sounding Brit-poppy? Again, I've never heard it so I'm not quite sure what you would mean by it.

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  2. This came into the record store where I work and we played it. It was more interesting than her later stuff for me. Like Sugarcubes for kids. I guess.

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