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An Adventurer Plays it Safe

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Bjork

at House of Blues, May 18

By Peter Margasak

Most of us yearn for stability and safety. We want to be in control, and we want to know what comes next. The workaday trials blandly described in most country songs appeal to so many Americans because they so closely mirror our own familiar problems. But for some, music about danger, mystery, and shock holds greater allure. The Icelandic singer Bjork doesn't bother with the predictable, violent pathologies of a genre like gangsta rap, but she investigates those volatile emotional gray areas that most of us fear to enter.

Bjork's songs are filled with images of different sorts of breaking points: people snapping, breaking down, losing control. The narrator in "Hyper-Ballad" throws "car parts, bottles, and cutlery" off a mountain to feel better; a relationship comes undone like a ball of yarn in "Unravel"; and in "Pluto" Bjork simply announces, "Excuse me / But I just have to / Explode." After three increasingly distinctive solo albums (four, if you count the great radical remix collection Telegram) it's become clear that she thrives on the tension that usually precipitates human dramas. Chaos equals life is an equation present not only in her lyrics but in the way her pixielike appearance contradicts her bold presence and, on her most recent album, Homogenic, in the way disparate musical elements--classically influenced string arrangements and harsh electronic beats--fight each other.

Post (1995), her second solo album, was Bjork's first real attempt at forcing together oil and water, and compared to what she's accomplished since it sounds rather tepid; it would be all over the map stylistically if she'd bothered with a map at all. Her brassy treatment of "It's Oh So Quiet" is charming but sounds out of place. While the other ten songs are more of a piece, they don't do much in the way of setting up that vital tension, and when she pushes her voice beyond its range it yields the same eccentric whoops and cries she's been falling back on since she was in the Sugarcubes. But Bjork didn't sit still, didn't leave good enough alone. Touring in support of the album she assembled a band that included a drummer, an accordion player, and a DJ, subtly transforming the songs without threatening their integrity. The post-tour remix album was practically a new album; some remixes rendered the originals unrecognizable and in other cases songs were totally rerecorded.

Her creative itch was still raging on Homogenic. She pits the lush 70s-style arrangements of Eumir Deodato against the oblique beatscapes of Mark Bell, who as a member of LFO led the UK charge to transform techno from euphoric hedonism into ominous paranoia. Homogenic's not as sprawling as Post because it knew exactly what it wanted to do. Still, it stood to reason that when Bjork took the Homogenic show on the road, with Bell twirling knobs and an eight-piece string section bowing away behind her, she'd pull the tablecloth out from under herself again. Instead she just refilled the water glasses.

As expected, her set was heavy on material from Homogenic, and for the most part what was performed live didn't vary much from what was on the album. The arrangements on "Bachelorette" were given a sound-track-like swell, and on "Pluto" Bell rode the faders like a mad scientist, accenting and disrupting the song's already frenetic rhythms. But otherwise he didn't do much more than load all the work he'd done for the album onto a computer and fiddle with an equalizer while technology translated the binaries into beats. The string instruments made a nice theoretical contrast with the computers, but live they seemed grafted on, an afterthought, and were given nothing extraordinary to do. On older beat-driven tunes like "Human Behaviour" and "Violently Happy" the eight seated musicians tapped their toes but rested their hands in their laps. They added some danger to "Pluto," sawing away madly, and they highlighted the austere beats of Homogenic's "Joga" with rich countermelodies, but these were exceptions.

Bell and the string section may have looked like Bjork's band, but they were just props--more interesting than the aqua banners and clear cellophane sheets that hung limply in the background, but props nonetheless. Luckily the singer invested plenty in her own performance. Her voice has never sounded better. She's suppressed her tendency to rely on her cute vocal quirks to connect with the audience, and has instead chosen to pour her heart into certain key phrases in her songs--"state of emergency" or "I'm so bored of cowards." But even in her triumphant vocals, there were no real surprises. And frankly, if I want familiar I'll go see George Strait.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Bjork photo by James Crump.

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