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It Ain't What You Use, But How You Use It

Bjork/ Building the Bandwagon; Portishead/ Running in Place

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It Ain't What You Use, But How You Use It

Ever since pop opened its giant mouth to swallow the innovations of hip-hop and subsequent sample-based musics like electronica, it's grown harder and harder to say what's truly groundbreaking and what's just an appealing combination of proven elements. The Icelandic singer Bjork and the British group Portishead have both walked that fine line in the past, and with the release of their latest albums, they cross it going in opposite directions.

Bjork opens her new Homogenic (Elektra) with the lines "If travel is searching / And home has been found / I'm not stopping / I'm going hunting," and it's all true--she's easily one of the decade's most peripatetic pop artists. Years before anyone at the New York Times had heard the word electronica, the former Sugarcubes front woman was backing up her eccentric but irresistibly catchy vocals with shards of techno, blunted breakbeats, and ambient swirls of sound. Her 1993 Debut was produced by Massive Attack associate Nellee Hooper and featured contributions from future U2 electronica guru Howie Bernstein and Anglo-Indian fusioneer Talvin Singh. On Post (1995) she added Graham Massey of British techno pioneers 808 State and rising trip-hop star Tricky to the team.

But her most forward-looking work up till now was last year's largely ignored Telegram, a "remix" album that beat most of the mainstream to the trend and one-upped those who'd made it there before her. Alongside more typical reworkings of tracks from Post--Outcast's noisy, minimalist techno, Dillinja's dirty drum 'n' bass, and LFO's heavy-lidded abstract hip-hop--Bjork reached out to include austere strings by former Elvis Costello collaborators the Brodsky Quartet, experimental percussion by Evelyn Glennie, and swollen, string-laden disco by obscure 70s hot-tub composer Eumir Deodato. Not only did it sound great, but it suggested that Bjork was more interested in building the bandwagon than jumping on it.

Homogenic, an album of all new tracks, fulfills every expectation raised by Telegram. Produced with LFO's Mark Bell, more than any of her previous efforts it simultaneously embraces and eviscerates the pop tradition. In places the album is as orchestrated as a 40s pop record--many of the orchestrations were done by Deodato--but the ripe arrangements are juxtaposed with skittering beats and sizzling abstract textures. The line between the lush strings and spare electronics seems intentionally hazy; any blatant signifiers of cold techno or decadent disco are filtered out. Bjork's trademark vocal quirks--the eerie cries, growls, swoops, and tiny animal sounds--aren't cutesy distractions but part and parcel of subtle, strange, melodic songs. And she delivers the whole package with expertly restrained intensity and bell-like clarity.

For all the elements it incorporates, Homo-genic is inextricable from the unique musical personality who envisioned it, and it's difficult to imagine another artist replicating it in any way. You can't say that about Portishead, who are often credited with having created trip-hop on their 1994 debut, Dummy, a gorgeously sluggish mix of slow-motion hip-hop beats, noirish atmospherics, and smoky chanteuse vocals. Morcheeba, Moloko, Sneaker Pimps, Hooverphonic, and Lamb are some of the best-known acts to have filched the formula; none of them has added to it anything of real significance.

Unfortunately, with their new soph-omore album neither have Portishead. Portishead (London) took group mastermind Geoff Barrow three years and one entirely scrapped effort to make, and yet it's a relatively timid work--Barrow seems afraid of endangering his pre-vious success. There are a few variations on the original theme: the new album's a little edgier, impressively bleak, with a richer mix of acidic guitars and colder, less sumptuous beats. "Half Day Closing," for example, sounds so distant, so creepy, from the slow, distended beats to Beth Gibbons's disembodied vocal, that with its simple, descending bass line it becomes suffocating in the best possible way. On the downside, Gibbons seems to have taken her own press too seriously. Instead of the insinuating melodies that fleshed out the debut, she mostly gives us shapeless warbling that in its desperation to live up to the Billie Holiday comparisons comes closer to the piercing nasality of Ethel Merman. On the album's first single, "Cowboys," she sounds like she's disciplining children rather than lamenting a lack of love.

While the debut drew from obvious sources like Lalo Schifrin, Weather Report, and Isaac Hayes, for Portishead Barrow recorded his own drum, bass, guitar, and string parts, cut them into vinyl, abused his new records to generate a mess of surface noise, and finally chopped everything up and rearranged it with a sampler. But in the new pop, it's not where you get the pieces; it's how you use them. Where Bjork coaxes full-fledged songs out of her bubbling stew, Barrow serves up a platter of half-cooked ingredients.

Postscript

Jazz fans who called the Bop Shop for information last week were greeted by a lengthy, flustered message from proprietor Kate Smith. She explained that she was no longer presenting shows at the old Cleopatra Show Lounge at 1146 S. Wabash, where she'd signed a 15-year lease this summer, because the owner's son had come in and removed the liquor license, which belongs to his father, George Mitchell. At press time Smith would not elaborate, except to say she was looking for a new space. Meanwhile, she's in the process of finding stopgap venues for events that were slated at the Bop Shop through early December; updates on those shows are available at 312-922-3233.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Bjork photo by Phil Poymer, album cover; Portishead photo by Laurence Passera, album cover.

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