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Authored by Dale Nickey:
Bjork saw the future, and it was her. Bjork cultivated visuals as a vital and equal component to her art right out of the starting gate. Future musical archaeologists looking for the roots of Lady Ga Ga and her ilk will need to look no further than the rich video legacy left by Bjork.
In a addition to a dazzling array of innovative music videos, Bjork has also maintained a steady flow of concert videos documenting every album in her discography with the exception of her soundtrack album for the film “Dancer In The Dark” and her a Capella album “Medulla”.
Viewing one concert video by Bjork only scratches the surface of her range as an artist. Each concert video is a unique experience unto itself. Bjork chooses a different character for each album and constantly changes band personnel to meet the demands of her ever-evolving music. So, the artist you watch on the “Cambridge” concert DVD is (in essence) a different person from the one performing on “Vessel” (Bjork’s first concert DVD). Only David Bowie matches Bjork in the ability to shape-shift public image while remaining true to the art.
Here is a consumer guide to the world of Bjork on video:
Bjork’s (1993) major label solo debut, the enigmatically titled “Debut” roared out of the gate at warp speed. Along with a smorgasbord of album remixes, Bjork later issued a companion concert video titled “Vessel”. “Vessel” gives us Bjork in her “Icelandic bumpkin in a strange land” persona. Her band of immigrants play with a precision that is both jazzy and inspired. This would be Bjork’s only tour with a traditional band set up (including a bass and drums rhythm section). The songs on “Debut” are brought to life stripped of the heavy electronic veneer found on the studio release. Candid home movies cut between songs give “Vessel” the requisite ‘period’ charm.
Bjork pulls out all the stops on the British version of the MTV franchise (Unplugged). Bjork employs a different instrumental configuration for each song performed. Again, the material is drawn exclusively from her smash “Debut”. Where “Vessel” was organic in an electric context; “….Unplugged” has Bjork sticking rigidly to the acoustic concept with the use of Harpsichord, a tuned percussion ensemble, horn section, glass harmonica, concert harp and stand-up acoustic bass. This DVD is value for the money due to the quality of the “Unplugged” performance alone. However, you get a bonus live in-studio performance of songs culled from later albums, “Post” and “Homogenic”. However, the visual effects are gimmicky and her dress is ill fitting.
“Live At Shepherds Bush”
With the release of Bjork’s second long-player “Post”, the specter of Bjork being a ‘one hit wonder’ was obliterated completely. “Post” exceeded the bar set by “Debut”. Hit singles started to pile up and music videos kept coming along with bigger budgets and bigger ideas. “Live at Shepard’s Bush” finds Bjork re-tooling her touring band with two programmers, a live-mixer, one keyboardist, an electric accordionist and a live drummer. Bjork herself sports a space-age flight attendant look and pumps up the electronic beats without losing the feel.
“Live At Cambridge”
“Live At Cambridge” is perhaps Bjork’s finest moment in concert. Bjork to this point had never been anything less than compelling on record and on video. With “…Cambridge” she shifts into a whole new gear and is truly mesmerizing. A vision in white as the ‘Icelandic Warrior Princess’, Bjork gobbles up the stage accompanied by only an eight piece string section and mixer/programmer Mark Bell. With an impressive repertoire to draw from, and legs to die for, Bjork delivers thrills and chills with this “Homogenic” tour document. No back-up singers or dancers to be seen. Just pure uncut talent.
” Royal Opera House”
Bjork’s relentless push upward and onward finds expression in her most ambitious album and tour yet, “Vespertine”. Where “Debut” and “Post” documented the travails of the alien, country girl coming of age in the big city, “Vespertine” chronicles Bjork’s retreat to the domesticity of her homeland (Iceland). However, as Bjork’s star ascended, her quest for excellence became insatiable. For “Vespertine”, the string octet was expanded to a full orchestra. Bjork travelled to Greenland to hand pick her women’s choir. Bjork retained outside artists/sound designers Matmos to give her beat structures a nip and tuck. Lush, expansive and not in a rush to go anywhere, ”Vespertine” stunned opera house audiences world-wide with the first successful attempt at quadraphonic surround-sound in concert.
Dancer In the Dark:
Bjork got a lot of mileage out of her only starring role in a feature-length film. Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival as well as an Oscar nomination for the film soundtrack. What about the film itself? “Dancer In the Dark” was an offbeat amalgam of melodrama, dance numbers and Shakespearean tragedy. The world was put on notice that Bjork could do just about anything. However, it was Bjork herself who pulled the plug on her acting career and never looked back. She turned down a mega-buck offer to co-star in “Tank Girl”…..thank god……
The Making of Medulla:
With the success of all things Bjork steaming along unabated, the artist decided it was time for a reset and re-think. She went through a period of exploration. She gave birth to her second child and investigated the limits and possibilities of the human voice with her a Capella album “Medulla”. Obviously logistics precluded a tour of the album, so Bjork instead chose to release a documentary on the making of “Medulla”. Bjork talks about her old bands, the challenges of making a vocal album and childbirth. There is plenty of cool studio footage of Bjork in charge and on a creative roll. If this isn’t enough, a DVD of the music videos for “Medulla” is also available.
“Songs From The Volta Tour (2008):
Bjork’s sabbatical from touring ended with the completion of the album “Volta”. One of the missions of “Volta” was the exploration of horn arrangements. The tour found a forty-something Bjork backed by an Icelandic female brass band, Mark Bell, two additional programmers, a keyboardist and a live drummer. The “Volta Tour” was as much a roll out of the “Medulla” material as it was for the new album “Volta”. This bottle of lightning was captured in Paris at the Olympia and finds Bjork at her most electrifying and commanding. This live concert integrates her audience more than any of Bjork’s other concert DVD and finds them in a state of euphoric rapture. As a bonus, we also get a brief sampler of Bjork at an intimate church in Reykjavik performing a brace of vocal-heavy tunes from “Medulla” with a guest choir and brass section. The Reykjavik performances are not essential but a nice curio for the true Bjorkhead.
This is the authorized documentary. You won’t see any tabloid revelations or regurgitation. The focus is on the artist, her roots and her muse. Sir Elton John and Sean Penn, Beck and Thom Yorke make vital and intelligent comment on Bjork’s art and aura. There are lots of interesting tidbits of information and revealing interviews with the subject herself. My personal highlight is Bjork performing “Anchor Song” on an old church pump organ in a chapel in Iceland. Bjork’s connection to the topography of her homeland is palpable.
“Volumen” presents the golden age of Bjork’s music videos from “Debut” through “Homogenic”. These include her groundbreaking work with directors Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry. “Isobel” is a noir masterpiece and “I Miss You” is an animated hoot and a half. You can find dazzling special effects on most music videos nowadays. But, most lack the intelligence and wit displayed on “Volumen”.
“Later with Jools Holland (1995-2011)”
The Jools Holland show is a British television institution that attracts A-list musicians from every country. It’s a show that Bjork has revisited several times and the show’s intimate staging and excellent sound has always inspired great performances. The DVD shows Bjork in all of her chameleonic glory. It’s also helpful that the song selections proceed chronologically. Moreover, (at this writing) it is the only official source for performances of her “Biophilia” material.
If all the above isn’t enough…….
The least essential Bjork DVD, it does have its charms. The DVD is (for the most part) only an expansion of the mini-documentary found on the “Royal Opera House” DVD. Miniscule details her “Vespertine” period. It also boasts some creative, home-video experiments and some rare interview segments with the artist.
After her big budget music video extravaganzas of the late 20th Century, Bjork starts to go introspective and reductive in her music videos. Don’t let me buzz kill this collection, but it’s a bit skimpy and self-indulgent. On the plus side, the provocative “Alarm Call” and the controversial “All Is Full Of Love” shine brightly.
This is not a Bjork release. But since any documentary about the music of Iceland must begin and end with the word Bjork, this fascinating study is loaded with rare Bjork concert footage and rare video clips. Additionally, the artist is interviewed extensively regarding the pop music explosion of the worlds youngest and most volatile landmass. Essential purchase for Bjork the completest.