Arts & Entertainment
3 min

CD reviews: Björk and Elliott Smith

One sparks, the other sputters

People talk of Björk’s voice as one of the most unique and bewitching in the history of pop. I somewhat agree (especially when she burst on the scene as a member of The Sugarcubes). But I also feel her voice is one of the most limited. It’s a whisper to a scream… continuously.

Most of the time she sounds like a bratty kid stubbing her toe in agony. Her emotions are now almost emotionless. She’s got the pipes but seems to have settled into her comfortable (albeit quirky) bag of tricks. Her voice doesn’t surprise anymore. You always know where’s going to take it. It’s as obvious as Celine Dion’s chest-pounding histrionics. What was once spellbinding is now… meh.

On her new album Volta she has at least added some threatening bombastic dance beats into her repertoire again. Her last albums (2001’s Vespertine and 2004’s Medulla) had atmospheric home-sweet-home peacefulness and serenity. Those albums didn’t have tracks to get you spastic on the dancefloor; the songs soothed you (or bored you). Volta has some of the high-powered sinister blissfulness of 1993’s Debut and 1995’s Post.

The first single “Earth Intruders” is everything you want from Björk. If anything makes her compelling it is the way she can take art-house obscurantism in song-writing and arrangements and turn it into Top 40 gold. It helps that she has genius producer Timbaland with her. They inspire each other tremendously. This is a magical track.

With its 1980s synth sweeps and drumbeats (that wouldn’t seem out of place on Fleetwood Mac’s wild “Tusk” or performance artist Laurie Anderson’s sweet “Sharky’s Day”), Björk and Timbaland make a dance song that intrigues — more importantly, it’s hellishly fun and just oozes coolness supreme.

“Here come the earth intruders/ We are the paratroopers/ Stampede of sharpshooters/ Voodoo,” Björk sings. “With our feet thumping/ With our feet marching/ Grinding the skeptics into the soil.”

“Innocence” is another Timbaland collaboration and I think these tracks work the best. Björk seems to be more spirited and playful on them. She comes across as Beyoncé’s Sartre-reading sister. She makes existentialist rump-shakers.

“Neurosis only attaches itself to/ Fertile ground where it can flourish/ The thrill of fear,” she wails. “Thought I’d never admit it/ The thrill of fear/ Now greatly enjoyed with courage.”

The rest of the album can best be described as well… Björk. There’s just something missing now. She doesn’t enthrall me like she did with her first three albums.

One of the guest’s is Antony Hegarty of Antony And The Johnsons. Here’s another unique voice and they do sound lovely together. But this seven-minute translation of a poem by Fyodor Tyutchev with its brass brouhaha is way too similar to, and not nearly as good as, her heart-wrenching “I’ve Seen It All” from her 2000 Dancer In The Dark soundtrack Selmasongs. For me, the title of this song describes the album perfectly: “The Dull Flame Of Desire.”

Elliott Smith is dead. But like Jeff Buckley, Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur, he’s still releasing albums. God bless them. Their music lives on in repackaged albums with bonus tracks or compilations of alternate takes and never-released gems. New moon is Smith’s new two CD set. As Larry Crane’s liner notes state, “Elliott Smith’s ‘left-overs’ presented a catalog rivalling many songwriters’ life work. And so here are those songs.”

Included are 11 songs from his second album sessions, 11 songs from his sublime Either/Or sessions, three from Rob Jones’ radio show and three from Jackpot.

This last set is really for his most ardent fans (I’m one). It’s sad sombre stuff but it’s all very pretty, too. Smith’s voice is whispery and fragile and so is his guitar playing. There aren’t inventive flourishes here, just a man and his guitar sharing his short life. His pain is more obvious on these recordings. He can’t hide behind complex arrangements.

Listening to him sing his Oscar-nominated song “Miss Misery” from Good Will Hunting is a very special thing. “I don’t have you with me but/ I keep a good attitude/ Do you miss me, miss misery/ Like you say you do?” You just want to die, cry, hold someone. You feel his pain but you feel his romantic soul as well.