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Thursday, Oct. 28, 2004 10:04 pm

sound patrol 10-28-04

Asthmatic robot monkeys can’t solve this riddle

Björk Medúlla (Elektra)

Björk may be the most unpopular pop star alive.

Sure, she had a gigantic hit single in her native Iceland when she was 11 years old, and she's sold millions of records over the subsequent decades. She earned critical praise and several award nominations for her film debut in Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark. She was the subject of a reverential feature in a recent issue of the New Yorker, and she sang one of her own compositions at the 2004 Olympics. The very young, very glamorous visual artist Matthew Barney is her baby-daddy. Every major rockdude with delusions of fanciness wants to, um, work with her. Widely acknowledged as a Serious Artist, Björk could record an entire album of herself passing gas and snoring, and thousands of bespectacled white boys would parse her every precious rumbling.

But spin one of her CDs for a sampling of average music fans, and you'll get a very different range of reactions: "Is this that mongoloid-looking broad who wore the dead-swan outfit to the Oscars?" "I ran over a cat once, and it sounded better than this." "Nobody likes Björk; they just pretend to so people will think they're smart." Yeah, most of these jerks probably vote Republican, but their naked-emperor objections aren't entirely without merit. Björk's neopagan-pixie shtick grates at times, her lyrics are consistently dreadful, and, when it comes to pushing the boundaries of the sonic sciences, she's not exactly Meredith Monk or even Yoko Ono. You can't "relate to" Björk, any more than you can "relate to" a glacier or an orchid or a Shakespearean sonnet. No one listens to Björk because she holds up a mirror to the human condition. She is beautiful, but, dude, she is so not you.

Medúlla, her seventh studio full-length, won't convert the skeptics; if anything, it's less accessible than anything she's done so far. Released three years after her last full-length, Vespertine, Medúlla might at first seem like Björk's attempt to shrug off all her Serious Artist baggage and reveal the essential personality beneath. Having declared that "instruments are so over," Björk has mostly ditched them altogether. Complementing her trademark ground-glass warble are beatbox prodigies Rahzel and Dokaka, Faith No More/Mr. Bungle alumnus Mike Patton, English art-rock veteran Robert Wyatt, an Inuit throat-singer, and two different choirs. With the exception of a few skeletal synthesizers, a barely-there piano, and some programmed samples from the likes of Matmos and Mark Bell, Medúlla is almost entirely a cappella. Still, the effect is less direct and "natural"-sounding than Björk's densest, glitchiest dance experiments. These might be real human voices, but they're often manipulated to the point of unrecognizability: Sometimes they sound like machine guns; sometimes like animals; sometimes like trumpets, theremins, Jew's harps, and asthmatic robot monkeys.

Yet despite the digital tricks and the almost uncomfortable proximity of Björk's voice -- so closely miked that you can hear every breath sound -- Medúlla is also the most beautiful CD in the singer's catalog. "Pleasure Is All Mine," the opening track, begins with crystalline ooohs and ahhs that morph into an uneasy collage of sighs and groans; the resulting tension complicates commonplace, if not treacly, lyrics about the joy of giving. "Where Is the Line?" takes a darker, more assertive look at the same subject, with clattery beats, whistling, and what sound like videogame noises puncturing a celestial chorus. Elsewhere, Björk concocts Icelandic-language tone poems more haunting than anything Sigur Ròs ever imagined, exuberant anthems for unrepentant sensualists, and undanceable dance numbers. She's still a total enigma, of course, but so is dark energy, which makes up most of the universe despite the fact that no one but a few wacky scientists believes in it.

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