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Sunday, January 20, 2013

Björk, "Homogenic"

One Little Indian (1997)

1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die

Björk is commonly described by the adjective "weird." Björk has a weird voice, weird instrumentals, weird album art, weird music videos, weird dresses at award shows. Every one of those things appears on "Homogenic," her third album (except the dress). If listeners went into a Björk album expecting more than just oddity, perhaps we'd learn something. There's a great album here, with only a thin layer of bizarre to peel away.

The biggest struggle for most is her voice. Vocal style is the number one thing people struggle to get over when trying to get into new music. As a Rush fan, I know many who can look past odd time signatures and ten-plus minute songs, but Geddy Lee's high pitch voice kills the deal. I know an equal sized group that can't handle Neil Young because of his vocal style. It's almost always a question of personal taste. Admittedly, Björk's vocals are indescribable in standard music terms. She's become the signature tone of Scandinavian alternative music (just look at Karin Dreijer Andersson of The Knife), but her talent goes beyond just sounding unique. She can go from soft, tentative volumes, to outraged growls within an instant (see "Alarm Call"). Vocalists like Thom Yorke of Radiohead and Jón "Jónsi" Birgisson of Sigur Rós both openly admit the influence.

Björk deserves some credit for songwriting on "Homogenic" as well. Her first two albums might have been alternative pop, but it was undisputedly pop. "Homogenic" brought on a new layer of maturity to her lyrics, reflecting on failed relationships ("Unravel"), bad behavior ("Immature") and hope ("All is Full of Love"). The best line of the bunch is the hilariously ironic line from "Alarm Call": "I'm a fucking Buddhist."

Her compositional skills are also on display here. "They" say that a great composer can take take a hundred instruments and make them sound like one. Björk doesn't. She features many, many instruments in her songs, but they all feel oddly detached. They work together and yet so independently that it almost feels minimalist. It's the opposite of the effect one feels listening to someone like Surfjan Steven who uses the same number of instruments to create incredibly dense packages. The independence of each instrument helps to emphasize Björk's voice, the true headliner. Her playing with balance adds a dose of oddity.

"Jóga" demonstrates the duality of instrumental approaches that Björk will take. The strings of the Icelandic String Octet adds a flavor of dark, Baroque pop, but the song builds into a dark, electronic approach reminiscent of the aggrotech movement within industrial music. She gets special kudos for use of the glass harmonica, a series of glass rings that forms an instrumental version of playing a series of wet wine glass rims, during the song "All Neon Like."

In sum, "Homogenic" is more than a curious album by a curious musician. It's a curious album that stands as an alternative landmark, and was named best album of the '90s by Slant magazine.

INTERESTING FACT: Björk seemed to be going through a faze where she was attracted to members of the British club scene prior to recording "Homogenic." She cited different songs as being about her recently ended relationships with trip-hop rapper Tricky and popular disc jockey Goldie.

Jóga by Björk on Grooveshark

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