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Bjork - Volta Print E-mail
Friday, 01 June 2007
format:    16-bit CD
performance:    6
sound:    8
release year:    2007
label:    Atlantic
reviewed by:    Matt Fink

ImageQuite possibly the world’s most unlikely pop star – a true eccentric with a catalogue full of albums that are consistently stranger and more avant-garde than any of her chart-topping contemporaries – Bjork shows no signs of entering the mid-career slump that generally plagues artists who have been making music for over 20 years. Seemingly, much of that is due to her unwillingness to repeat herself. Now that Beck has settled firmly into a musical amalgam of all of the things that he has been doing over the last 15 years, she is the one songwriter from her generation for whom every album remains a cultural event, a moment promising an artist’s latest reinvention. From the dance-inspired electronic music of her early solo releases to the increasingly austere, emotionally-loaded material of her last few releases, the now 41-year-old Icelander has made a career out of making music that is simultaneously modern and timeless, the work of an artist who can’t help but sound exactly like herself. With Volta, she sounds confused for the first time.

Inspired by a post-tsunami trip to Indonesia, after which she decided she wanted to make a more joyful and tribally visceral album to emphasize mankind’s unifying spirit, her sixth proper studio album is weighed down by a hit-or-miss optimism that is often cloying in its smile-on-your-brother triteness. Where previous albums were unified in a consistent musical motif, from the icy soundscapes of 1997’s Homogenic to the multi-layered a cappella arrangements of 2004’s Medulla, here Bjork seems unsure of exactly what she wants. And while that makes for an endlessly eclectic and adventurous album, the lack of a focal point makes more evident that there simply aren’t that many interesting songs here.
Typical of her constant drive for melding disparate and often incompatible influences, Bjork earned many of her pre-release headlines by signing up hip-hop uber-producer Timbaland (Missy Elliott, Justin Timberlake) to work on a few of Volta’s tracks. And while having him work on the entire album would have been a daring stroke indeed, she retained him for only two tracks, resulting in two of the album’s best moments. Opening with the soggy march of first single “Earth Intruders,” the album peaks early, with Timbaland’s mash-up of primal thumping beats and stuttering electronic groans joining Bjork’s dire pronouncement of the “total carnage” that the human race has wrought upon the Earth. “We are the earth intruders/we are the paratroopers/some are the sharpshooters,” she says in her typically playful coo, the dark nature of the statement undercut by the prancing thumb pianos of Congolese sextet Konono N°1 and the album’s most catchy vocal hook. Timbaland’s other contribution, the surprisingly funky “Innocence,” marries a percussive grunt to a giddily swaggering vocal hook and gurgling synth hook to create a track that is a perfect hybrid of Bjork’s pixie persona and Timbaland’s party vibe. If only more of the album couldn’t capitalize on that spirit.

Adding to the scattered feel of the album is a series of guest musicians that, despite their prodigious skills, seem dispatched in unusual places. Guest vocalist Antony Hegerty (of Antony and the Johnsons) sounds unusually tentative dueting on the overly serious “The Dull Flame of Desire,” his otherwordly vibratto miscast among the pulsing bass drums and stately horns. Malian kora player Toumani Diabate adds gorgeous flourishes to the rather commonplace percussive plops of “Hope,” but the track’s heavy-handed examination of a sucide bombing is too ponderous to save Bjork’s underdeveloped melody. Despite featuring some of her most vivid wordplay and the exotic tones of Chinese pipa player Min Xiao Fen, “I See Who You Are” simply meanders through its four-and-a-half minutes, never really finding a singularly compelling moment.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is “Declare Independence,” an almost overly simplified encouragement of free thought wrapped in squelchy electronic glitches and menacingly driving beats. “Declare independence/don’t let them do that to you,” she warns, never articulating further exactly what oppressive force you are defying. “Make your own flag!” she shouts tensely, but despite the song’s visceral flailing, it’s hard to see it as anything more than vague sloganeering. With one of the album’s most ethereal vocal melodies, “Wanderlust” is one moment where all the album’s constituent threads unite in one compelling whole, with the earthy pulse of a 10-piece Icelandic female brass section mixing with a complexly unraveling backdrop of electronic beats and growling synthesizers. Still, such moments are uncharacteristically scarce for an artist whose gift for creating distinctly unified albums has never wavered.

Ultimately, it’s far too early to know if Bjork is beginning the inevitable decline phase of her remarkably consistent career as one of pop music’s most habitually innovative voices, and even an album as unfocused as Volta is still unmistakably the work of an idiosyncratic artist. Most concerning, though, is that the tracks that fail do so not from the audaciousness of their ideas but from a lack of vision. Even worse, at 10 songs the album feels both remarkably slight and needlessly tiresome at the same time. Ultimately, Volta disappoints simply because it isn’t nearly as joyful in execution as it seemed to be in conception.

Taking over the bulk of production duties for the first time, Bjork has no difficulty creating a consistently engaging and detailed backdrop for her music. As always, her arrangements are filled with detail and nuance, and close listens will reveal a wide array of easily missed moments, from carefully constructed beats to subtle references to the concrete world – from tugboats to ocean waves to subways and rainfall. Regardless of the relative lack of direction, it still sounds immaculate.

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