Girl Uninterrupted – Guide to Bjork on DVD

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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:

Vessel:

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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.

MTV Unplugged:

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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”

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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”

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“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”

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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:

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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:

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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):

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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.

Also Essential…..

Inside Bjork’

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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:

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“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)”

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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…….

“Miniscule”

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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.

“Volumen Plus”

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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.  

“Screaming Masterpiece”

Screaming Masterpiece: El legado musical de Islandia

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.

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Bjork + Biophilia + Bowl = Brilliant (Concert Review)

Bjork at The Hollywood Bowl – (06/11/13)

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More Bjork?..click>>>>  medullabiophiliaolympicsMatmos /bjork

Reviewed by Dale Nickey:

After three intimate in-the-round performances at the Hollywood Palladium, planet Bjork landed at The Hollywood Bowl Tuesday night for one last blast of the potent nature/technology/music cocktail that is her current Biophilia project.  One wonders if the Hollywood-specific focus of her efforts is, in any way, a statement to Tinseltown that there is more to Bjork  than the much ballyhooed swan dress that she wore at the 2001 Oscar ceremony.  Probably not.  She has never been known to give a crap about celebrity gossip.

No matter, the assembled multitude at The Bowl will only remember Bjork and Graduale Nobili (Icelandic ‘choir girls gone wild’) performing a generous, lavish set of outsider Art-Pop.  Bjork has recovered fully from throat surgery that forced date cancellations earlier in the tour.  If you’re worried about the state of her voice, don’t.  She pushed the degree of difficulty and stuck every landing.  And, if the adoring Bowl throng was disappointed at not hearing fan favorites “Isobel”, “Human Behavior”, or “Bachlorette”, they didn’t show it.  Give Bjork her props;  she held a canyon full of hyperactive metrosexuals and millennials spellbound with a set of brainy, complex, and (for the most part) downbeat selections from her latest album “Biophilia”,  as well as some eclectic offerings from her back catalog.

After the audience bestowed their patience on the sacrificial opening act, our heroine made sure we cooled our heals in the parlor an appropriate amount of time before she deigned to descend the staircase and receive callers.  All the while a curt text message appeared on the five massive video screens (in Spanish and English) informing us that her majesty did not appreciate bootleg recording or I-phone waving at the expense of her performance…tank yu…

Initially, this writer had some concern about the diminutive warrior princess getting lost in the vast expanse of The Hollywood Bowl.  Fears were put to rest quickly with the opener “Cosmology”. The video images were celestial and stunning.  More important, they were relevant. Bjork’s latest work “Biophilia” is an album length love letter to nature in all its forms and substructures. Deep space, moon, rock crystals and microscopic organisms. The resulting live show is equal parts multi-media rock extravaganza and x-treme power point presentation.

One small beef was that Bjork only appeared on the big screen once during her performance. That was on the second song “Hunter”.  It was a tease not to be repeated.

Sound was precise, full, clear and excellent throughout.  Sonic integrity was even maintained during the mega-decibel set closer “Nattura”, where Bjork and the girls let their hair down and had a collective spazz attack while flames engulfed the stage.

There was a scarcity of classic material on the set list.  However, when Bjork did lob a chart hit into the audience it was gobbled up voraciously like sharks to chum.  “Joga” (from Homogenic) was moving and poignant; an emotional highlight.  Also, “Possibly Maybe” benefited greatly from a post-modern makeover from her skilled and focused two- piece band.  Again, a shout out to Graduale Nobili .  Refreshingly free of spandex and danskins;  all of them sang their asses off,  all of them had a blast,  and all were real  flesh and blood beauties who looked like they didn’t mind eating a healthy meal.

In the end, Bjork rewarded our adoration with three encore pieces.  First off was a gorgeous a cappella workout by the girls titled “Oskasteiner”.  Then Bjork came out sporting some sort of spiked plastic head-wear. She then gave us a proper orgasm with “Hyperballad”.  When Bjork and band finally floored the gas pedal on “Declare Independence”, she had all the shiny happy people dancing in the aisles.

It’s nice to know that in this dystopian, Duck Dynasty world, it’s still possible to enjoy an alien visitation. In our time and place, Bjork is as close to an extraterrestrial as we’re likely to get. Seeing her live should definitely be on your bucket list.  Because, like the snow leopard; when she’s gone, that’s it, show’s over. There won’t be another coming along to replace her.

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Lost Treasures – Bjork’s “Medulla” Revisited

There’s a huge difference between viewing the video of a baby’s birth and witnessing the squalling, chaotic, fluid spewing event up close and in person.  Bjork’s Medulla peels off some layers and allows us to move a little closer to the act of creation. Missing are the  lush orchestrations she usually employs to frame her muse. Bjork maintains her aesthetic despite the fact she takes a 180 degree turn away from orthodox instrumentation. Medulla gives us a record equipped only with the most primal tool of human expression; the voice.  Not just an a cappella exercise, Medulla (in typical Bjorkian fashion) redefines the voice’s function as a musical delivery medium.  Many artists before have tried their hand at the ‘all vocal’ album. But, none have succeeded as Bjork has on Medulla.  Her mission is to not just celebrate the voice, but to subvert, distort and manipulate it into a third entity.  Part human, part synthetic, and 100 % unique . Even the drumbeats on the album are produced by vocal slight of hand.

Before Medulla, the trajectory of her studio work was admirably logical. Every album was a consolidation and advancement over the one previous. Post (Bjork’s brilliant second album), took Debut’s fusion of organic and electronic elements and pumped up the drama by accenting  the electric and eclectic.  On Homogenic (Bjork’s third album), the Icelandic String Octet shared  the spotlight with massive electronic beats to help define a new genre (Icelandic Neoclassical Soul/Pop).  When Bjork followed up with Vespertine, the strings had expanded it’s role to a grand, orchestral scale augmented with a full female choir; the big beat replaced by a shower of skittering micro beats buzzing around the stereo spectrum like flying audio insects.  After Vespertine Bjork was at a crossroads artistically.  She chose to roll the commercial dice and challenge her audience.  There are some remarkable highlights on Medulla.

“Where Is The Line With You” is the most ‘off the wall’ track on Medulla. For me,  it carries the benign menace of a 50’s science fiction movie but manages to do it with a smile and a wink.  It doesn’t really matter if you don’t know what she’s carrying on about.  It’s a meticulous cacophony.  The joy of noise for it’s own sake. Special mention to Faith No More frontman Mike Patton for adding extra menace and color to this amazing track.

“Oceania” is the prettiest track on the album.  A female chorus swirls around the main melody like glissando piano runs.  However, the result is otherworldly. On this track–like most of Medulla—you will hear sounds you’ve never heard on a record before .Bjork – Oceania

“Triumph Of A Heart” is the closest thing to a commercial single on the album.  It’s catchy and wacky.  Japanese vocalist Dokaka is allowed to have his way with TOAH and leaves his indelible mark on the track.  And like any strong seasoning, a little Dokaka goes a long way.watch toah 

“Mouths Cradle” is an ambitious piece.  More than any other track, “Mouths Cradle” seems the most comfortable in its skin.  Both extremes of Medulla merge seamlessly on the track; the organic and technological.

At times the performances on Medulla are so raw and immediate, you get the feeling the writing process ended mere nanoseconds before the record button was pressed. At other times it seems you’re eavesdropping on an artist in holy communion with her muse.  If you want to hear the true essence of Bjork, this is the album to own. It’s hard to call this album her masterpiece. The overall excellence of  of her early period is hard to dismiss.  However on a purely creative level, Medulla may well be Bjork’s greatest achievement.