Every town or city has its own local legends and heroes.1 For instance, country singer Dolly Parton is a god in my town of Knoxville and East Tennessee in general. Sure, she’s a country music legend and recognizable pop culture figure in the world at large, but in that section of her home state, she’s so so so so so much more. To East Tennesseeans she’s on a plane equaled only by Peyton Manning, Pat Summitt, and God. In all honesty, if I got to meet her, I’d probably cry. And I’m not even a big country fan!2
In Iceland, apparently, painter Johannes Kjarval holds a similar place in local esteem. The only facts about him that I feel comfortable stating definitively are: 1) he was wildly prolific and dabbled in widely ranging styles and 2) he’s beloved in Iceland, but not really anywhere else.
He’s such a locals-only figure that the only writings on him seem to be either in Icelandic, or in decidedly amateur blog posts3 that refer to Bjork as a “pop singer…who sings for the rock band Sigur Ros.”
Which brings us to the song at the top of this post, a flute-based instrumental track dedicated to Kjarval. It’s the only original composition written by Bjork herself for the album, and one of a mere three tracks to which she contributed non-vocal recordings, playing the track’s central flute part. It’s not a bad little tune either, but it’s probably the track on this record that sounds the most juvenile. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this. She was, after all, only a child at the time of this album’s creation.
Beyond that though, there’s not much I can say. I’d like to see if there’s any connection between Kjarval’s art and Bjork’s tribute song, but there’s just not enough criticism on him for me to be able to make that connection. (I’m not versed in art history or painting techniques enough to critique it much myself.) I’d like to say that admiring the versatility and adventurous spirit of Kjarval’s art foreshadows Bjork own creative restlessness, which is of course one of her strongest attributes as an artist. (Is there a more disparate / heterogeneous masterpiece than Post?) But, again, there’s just not enough firm connections for me to point to.
Ultimately though, I enjoy the existence of this song because of how humanizing it is. Another key aspect of Bjork’s art and public persona is how she manipulates and rejects her humanity, whether it’s mutating her appearance into the alien image on the cover of Homogenic, or turning herself into a robot in the video for “All Is Full Of Love.” This track though, sounds exactly like a talented little kid first spreading their creative wings and conveying some sense of the universal feeling of worshiping and paying homage to an icon or personal hero.
She’s got Kjarval, I’ve got Dolly, and you have your’s.
1. The best fictional example of this that I can think of is Li’l Sebastian, the inexplicably famous miniature horse from Parks and Recreation. I wrote a post on a song about him recently, if you’d like to hear more.
Quick, you’re overseeing an album by an Icelandic-speaking pre-teen girl, what cover should you suggest? If you guessed an Motown-soul deep cut by Stevie Wonder’s wife, you’re absolutely right! Yep, one of the many covers that appear on Bjork’s childhood debut record is “Bukolla” a translated version of the song “Your Kiss Is Sweet" by Syreeta, co-written by her then husband, all-around musical god Stevie Wonder.1 Aside from the fact that it’s always nice to have the words “Stevie Wonder” appear in an album’s credits, it’s a strange choice to say the least.
Stranger still is the fact that the baby Bjork version of the song is undeniably the more aggressively funky of the two. While the original’s instrumental track is built around drums, a bouncing piano vamp, and a strange, shimmering synth sound, “Bukolla” is based around a liquidy, undulating wah-wah bass. If you look up “funk” in the dictionary, I’m pretty sure that book plays that bass tone and then screams “GOOD GOD, Y’ALL!” I guess they decided that if they were gonna try to force some soulful groove into this record, then they were gonna have go all in on it.
But, ultimately, this is one of those songs that I like the idea of way more than the actual song. The track itself is a perfectly passable rendition, but it makes me very happy that we live in a timeline in which a young Bjork recorded a funk song. That’s the stuff that dreams are made of.
1. The piano intro to the original track inexplicably reminds me of David Bowie’s “Changes" and (to a lesser extent) The Beatles’ "Lady Madonna.” This isn’t insightful or even that accurate, but I had to get that thought out of my head.
The first thing that surprised me about the self-titled record that Bjork recorded as a child was how not terrible it was. Don’t worry, I’m not going to start claiming that I’d rank it above Vespertine or anything like that. It’s not a great record by any stretch, but it’s way way way better than I expected it to be. The second thing that surprised me was how dance-oriented it is. Going in, I anticipated a bunch of treacly ballads and gratingly cute children’s songs. Instead, the record opens with the track above, “Arabadrengurinn”.
The song opens with what sounds like field recordings of a stream or forest, followed immediately by dueling, crisscrossing sitars. The effect is similar to the album’s cover, a somewhat worrying tone of vague orientalism.1 From there, though, the song switches gears from chintzily arabesque to a rootsier take on a Chic track. The track transforms into a full-on disco number, groovy basslines, jaunty xylophones, and chicken-scratch guitar licks and all.
And it all works! Somewhat counter-intuitively, a sitar-flecked disco number sung in Icelandic by a tween girl sounds surprisingly logical. If you were to listen to one track from this album, I’d recommend this one, despite the fact that it really doesn’t have any particularly Bjork-y elements. Instead, it’s just the most adventurous track on the album, and one of the most successful.
1. TWG’s “Is This Prejudiced?” Corner:
Between the oooooh-soooo-mystical sitar intro and the fact that the title is Icelandic for “The Arab Boy” you’re probably wondering if this track’s lyrics rely on stereotypes. Not speaking Icelandic myself, I’ve looked up translations of the lyrics, and according to them (and assuming they’re correctly transcribed) it tells the story of a girl who visits Egypt and falls in love with a boy. Then, she has to return to Iceland and they are tragically separated. She then laments her lost love and very Bjorkly states that she sees “his face in sticks and stones.” The lyrics reference several cliche postcard images of Egypt like the Nile, the pyramids, and the fact that they “didn’t need a car, just a dromedary.” Ultimately though, it doesn’t extend beyond the setting. There doesn’t seem to be any sort of stereotyping of the character of the boy, just hackneyed images of his region. Aside from the fact that, you know, Egyptians ≠ Arabs. But maybe the boy was on holiday too? Nah, probably not.
Final Verdict: Not prejudiced, but very very very cliched.
Although juvenilia (works produced during an artist’s youth) is ostensibly one of the focuses of Early Werx 4 Me, we’ve never actually featured any music produced by children. In past installments, we’ve generally focused on works produced by now notable artists during their early adulthood or their teenage years. To rectify this, we’re going to spend this week examining what is sort of kind of technically Bjork’s first solo album. The reason I used all of those quibbling modifiers is because Bjork, the album in question, was made when she was eleven years old, and Bjork herself doesn’t see it as part of her solo canon. (I mean, the next time she released a record under her own name, she called it Debut.)
Looking closely at the details of the album’s creation, it seems more like a family project than the debut recordings of a solo artist. Her stepfather Sævar Árnasson produced the album and generally oversaw its recording. He also wrote and played guitar on the opening track, and her mother Hildur Hauksdóttir designed and shot the cover photo. Naturally, solo albums are never truly the work of a single individual, but it seems understandable that Bjork wouldn’t really consider it her album. Though it is her name in the artist’s slot, her age necessitated a lot of outside help.
And yet, Bjork still shines through. Every now and then on the record you get these little glimpses of the idiosyncratic musician she would eventually become. Just listen to the chorus of the track above. I guarantee that if you’re a Bjork fan you’ll find it familiar in an odd, half-formed way. The way that she switches quickly between delivering knotty, consonant-heavy vocals to soaring, vowel-emphasizing ones is 110% classic Bjork. She goes from talk-singing to practically belting in an instant. Can’t you hear the musical DNA of “The Modern Things" in there? Maybe? Sort of kind of technically? Naturally, this sense of foreshadowing isn’t always present, but every now and then she’ll do something like that that’s utterly unmistakably her.
That is, of course, one of the chief pleasures of exploring musicians’ early works; you get a fleeting but exhilarating glimpse of the artist that you love.
I have violently conflicting feelings about Lorde’s 2013 super-ultra-hyper-mega smash “Royals.” On one hand, I always find it reassuring when a weird song by an unknown artist somehow finds its way onto mainstream pop radio. But, on the other, I don’t really love “Royals” as a song, or any of her other work for that matter. It’s not that I’m trying to resist my enjoyment of something massively popular to help reinforce my indie cred. I just don’t find her work all that interesting or catchy. I mean, we already had a perfectly good Imogen Heap, didn’t we?
Now, if you’ve ever looked at this blog before,1 you might think that I don’t like “Royals” because it’s anti-rap, but you’d be wrong. Hell, “Royals” is practically a Drake song. It does, however, espouse a eye-roll-inducing and trite viewpoint, but what do you expect from a seventeen-year-old. Every teen ever has declared at one point or another that they’re not all materialistic like everyone else, her declaration just happened to become a hit single. I’m surprised it doesn’t include a few lines about how the colors that one person sees might not be the colors that someone else sees, and also have you read Fight Club?
But, of course, all of the worst kinds of moralizers have taken up “Royals” as a rallying point to fight against all that bling-bling stuff. They’re the kind of absurdly self-serious kids that favorite Karmin covers of rap songs and love to lament being born in the wrong generation. They think that they’re being groundbreaking and edgy, when they’re doing exactly what every new generation has done throughout all of human history.
That’s why I love T-Pain’s rework of the song. It totally exposes how little distance there actually is between “Royals” and “I’m ‘N Luv (Wit A Stripper).” And, even if they won’t admit that that’s true, it’ll still piss off the smug little fuckers who think that they’re the first people in the history of man to decide that money can’t buy happiness. After all (if you haven’t guessed this already) I’m a grumpy old man and these kids need to get off my lawn. I just put down grass seed and they’re gonna trample it all up. Don’t you kids have some Kerouac to go fawn over? As for old man TWG, I’m gonna be here, sitting on my porch swing, whittling, and listening to Flockaveli.
Pete Seeger - “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep (Live At 1964 Newport Folk Festival)”
Mentioning the late, great Pete Seeger in a post from last week inspired me to revisit some of my favorite tracks of his. So, I thought I’d share with you my all-time, #1, absolute, total, supreme, A-1, premier, top, super-duper, mega, ∞ favorite recording of his. It’s a live recording of him playing a gospel song called “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep" at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival.1
On one hand, I love it as a document of Seeger as a live performer. He has such an effortless ease and earnest charisma on stage. You don’t even have to have been there (or at any concert of his): you can hear it right on the record. He uses gentle prodding and a gentle kind of kidding to draw in the audience and put them at ease about joining in the singing. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a crowd so enthusiastic and committed to singing along at any show I’ve ever attended.2 And, wow, that high note he sings over the crowd singing the chorus on their own. Goodness. That’s just fantastic.
I also love this recording because it perfectly captures how transcendent simple, direct music can be. Though we music fans often tend to celebrate experimental abnormality, or dazzlingly intricate technical proficiency, there’s an undeniable power in simplicity. No matter if it’s a huge four-to-the-floor drop at a disco, or a clap-a-long church hymn, or Marcus Mumford’s unyielding kickdrum, stark, straightforward rhythms and choruses can be utterly entrancing. Just listen to people clapping and singing along with Pete on this track. Is there any question that they’re having a transcendent musical experience?
I suppose what I’m saying is that we should all remember to enjoy the simple pleasures of life now and again. And that we should all remember to enjoy Pete Seeger now and again, too.
2. The closest moments of audience participation I’ve personally witnessed were Jeff Mangum playing “Holland, 1945”, Blitzen Trapper playing “Furr”, and the Pride of the Southland Marching Band playing “Rocky Top” after the Vols scored a touchdown.
Trillville - “Weakest Link” vs. Drake - “Draft Day”
"Draft day, Johnny Manziel / Five years later how am I the man still? / Draft day, A. Wiggins / Fuck that other side, bitch, we stay winnin’"
That’s the chorus of the recent Drake loosie “Draft Day" in which Drizzy compares himself to two athletes who are expected to be picked early in their respective drafts.1 Listen to it got me thinking about how pop culture references can be a double-edged sword for an artist. On one hand, they allow the artist to capture and engage with the zeitgeist, getting an easy boost at the same time. Also, it allows the artist to invoke very specific images and emotions in the audience by invoking something with which they’re already familiar.
But, hyper-specific references are always a dicey proposition. The reason for this is that it’s tough to predict which parts of popular culture will endure, which will be forgotten, and which will become kitsch.
That brings us to the track at the top of this post, a deep cut off Trillville’s split LP with Lil Scrappy, the exceedingly appropriately named The King of Crunk & BME Recordings Present: Trillville & Lil Scrappy. While I’ve often mentioned on this blog that Scrappy’s half is severely underrated, Trillville’s is also a solid collection of tracks. “Neva Eva" and "Some Cut" are mid-00s crunk classics, and "Get Some Crunk In Ya System" finds Lil Jon inject a sense of creeping dread to his production with surprisingly successful results. The sore thumb of the album, though, is undoubted the track above, "Weakest Link."
Yup, it’s rap song based around the catchphrase from the short-lived (in America) game show Weakest Link.2 They must have recorded this during the first week the show aired, when the funny guy at work couldn’t stop saying “You are the weakest link. Goodbye." in a stern British accent, and everyone found it irrepressibly hilarious. The phrase, however, proved have the longevity of a severely inbred goldfish, and became an dated cultural relic within a fortnight. As a result, Trillville’s "Weakest Link" quickly joined tracks like "Email My Heart" and "Beepers as a “hey, remember that?”-eliciting curiosity.
Which brings me back to Drake. It’s certainly possible that Manziel and Wiggins will both succeed with flying colors and “Draft Day” will age well and become an interesting footnote in both of their biographies. But there’s also a strong chance that both of them will wind up a bust, and the track will take on a humorously ironic tone in retrospect.
"Draft day, Ryan Leaf / I’mma keep winnin’ / That’s just my belief”
"Draft day, Sam Bowie / Spent a mil’ but that ain’t nothin’ to me”
"Draft day, J. Russell / Workin’ hard, stayin’ on my hustle”
1. For those of you who don’t like sport ball games or have recently awoke from a coma, Johnny Manziel is a freewheeling, extravagant gunslinger of a quarterback who’s either going to be “Bret Favre who can scramble” or “a smaller Tim Tebow who prays at the altar of himself”, depending on who you ask. Andrew Wiggins is a Canadian small forward touted as “the next LeBron” at this time last year, but who now looks like he might wind-up being “the next Rudy Gay.”
2. Since this is Tumblr, you probably know it from the Doctor Who episode “Bad Wolf.”
Generally, when we make lists or have a special feature, I try to make an interesting or eye-catching image to accompany it. Typically, I’ll put together a few ideas, then BIH and I will narrow it down to the one we want to use. I’ve got a bunch of rejected ideas sitting on my computer, and I felt kind of sorry for them. So, I thought I’d post them, and let them have a moment in the sun.
(And if you’re wondering, yes, as a child I did make sure I played with every one of my toys regularly so none of them would feel neglected.)
Every now and then, excitement over a band’s new material leads to me to seek out and obsess over every new scrap of sound they make. I’m certain that you’ve done the same at one time or another. What I think is particularly interesting about that situation is that it sometimes accidentally creates a mental mark that winds up effecting how you hear or think about that same new material when it’s finally officially released. It might be something as small as always referring to “My Girls” as “House” or as big as making the official version seem wrong.
For me, an example of the latter effect is the track above, a live rendition of a song that later appear on The Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s Higher Than The Stars EP. Way back when this rendition of the song was recorded and released to the internet in March of 2009, I was hopelessly in love with their self-titled debut album which was released a month earlier, and squarely in ravenous-for-anything-else-of-their’s mode. So, for the six months that separated the appearance of this version and the studio version on aforementioned EP, I listened to this song over and over. As a result, I still think of the live version as being the definitive version of “103” and find the studio version quite a strange listen.
In addition to that half-year span, I think that I had such a strong reaction to the finalized version was just how different it was from the live bootleg above. Hell, they barely sound like the same band. While the final version is dominated by the guitar part, the live version relegates it to a supporting role. The studio incarnation of “103” might be feature buzzzzzzzziest guitars in the Pains’ catalog and they’re a band that compulsively lights candles at the altar of the Jesus and Mary Chain. Normally, I enjoy their noisy, crackling guitar tones, but on this track it just seems to swallow everything up. The vocals and drums are buried low in the mix, and you really have to focus in on them to keep track of them. On the live version, the guitar part is (fairly) clean, and on equal footing with the drums and a cheery synth organ part that’s not present in the studio version. This live arrangement gives the song a sense of ramshackle energy that’s completely lost in the feedback dirge of track found on the EP. That’s why, years later, I still think this live version is the best recording of this song.
Then again, maybe that’s just because I heard it first. I think it’s perfectly plausible that if I were to go back in time to March 2009 and sneak the final version into my iTunes,2 I might be writing about the track above as a minor curio, or even a vastly inferior rendition. But, in this timeline, I’m always gonna prefer the live version.
If you agree with me about the superiority of the track above, you can download it here.
1. This song was the official apartment song of apartment 103 when BIH and I lived there together.
2. As I am now a member of the Foobar2000-using master race, I look back on time as an iTunes user with nothing but shame and regret.
3. Oh, and here are some pictures of the Pains eating pizza that I have saved on my laptop for some reason.
More like the Pains of Being Pizza At Heart, amirite u guys?
Yes, on a surface level, both of their styles seem wholly divorced from one another. How To Dress Well makes warped, half-familiar R&B fever dreams, and Basho plays a unique fusion of Indian classical music and Appalachian folk. I mean, one incorporated elements of traditional Indian ragas and the other interpolates snippets of Ashanti songs.
And yet, listening to HTDW’s cover of Basho’s song “Blue Crystal Fire” the intersection of their two styles seems more logical, in spite of everything in the previous paragraphs. Basho often utilized a resonant, droning vocal style that’s really not that far off from the distorted vocals that Tom Krell tends to use in most of his work as How To Dress Well. And there’s no song in Basho’s catalog that’s as droning and warped as “Blue Crystal Fire” from Visions of the Country. On that track, Basho employs an odd, other-worldly vocal style that’s full of wavering notes and sorrowful timbres.
Krell’s mostly straightforward cover uses that vocal vibrato as a conceptual bridge between their styles. He doubles down on the track’s other-wordly vibes by adding in a chorus of warbling backing vocals and spacey, atmospheric flourishes of ambient sound. The result is not all that far from Basho’s original, yet it still sounds awfully close to rest of How To Dress Well’s output.
It’s always interesting to trace back lines of influence in music, especially when you can make a connection that isn’t obvious at first. Here, this cover draws an unexpected musical link simply by existing, and it proves the validity of that connection in its surprisingly natural execution.
Oh, and it’s also a wonderfully dreamy take on a great song too.
How To Dress Well’s version of this track was released as a 7” bonus record that accompanied deluxe LP editions of his albums Total Loss. Basho’s can be found on his album Visions of the Country, which was recently reissued by Gnome Life records.
PS: A few weeks ago, I saw How To Dress Well play live, and all of the new stuff he played (from his just announced third record) is amazing. I think it’s going to blow his first two records out of the water, and those are both solid albums. I try to keep Dolphin/Shark out of the new record hype train, but wow, I am so on the new record hype train for HTDW right now. YOU CRAZY FOR THIS ONE, SELF.