Björk

Bjork_by_Santiago_Felipe
Photo by Santiago Felipe

I hope we didn’t scare you, gentle readers, by going silent for a few weeks there. You might even say we went “Oh So Quiet.” Why? Because we were agonizing over what artist would be worthy enough to be the 300th (300th! Christ, we’re old) addition to our Weird List.

Then, with the force of an erupting Icelandic volcano, it hit us: Somehow, 299 weird acts into this thing, we’d never written about Björk.

Usually with this blog, we’re so busy looking under rocks and in the darkest corners of the internet for the most obscure, esoteric shit that it’s easy for us to overlook an artist of Björk’s stature. She’s sold millions of albums and headlined countless major festivals — including Coachella twice, which was two more times than any female solo artist had ever done it until they finally booked Lady Gaga and Beyoncé these past two years.  She’s been the subject of a Museum of Modern Art exhibition and been named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by that 145th most influential magazine in the world, Time. She performed at the opening ceremonies of the 2004 Summer Olympics wearing a 10,000-square-foot dress — and somehow, that’s only the second most famous dress she’s ever appeared in.

But make no mistake — as famous and widely beloved as she is, Björk is goddamn weird. Over the course of her solo career, she’s released nine studio albums — not counting a self-titled release from 1977, made when she was 11 — that have gotten progressively more arty and abstract. Starting with 2001’s Vespertine (which featured contributions from our favorite weird electronic/musique concrète Baltimore duo, Matmos), each Björk album has existed in its own little universe, occasionally recalling previous Björk albums but really sounding unlike anything else — despite the fact that, at this point, there are literally thousands of artists out there who would love nothing more than to be compared favorably to Björk.

Most English-speaking audiences didn’t become aware of Björk Guðmundsdóttir until 1987, when her band The Sugarcubes scored a U.K. hit with “Birthday,” a quirky bit of Cure-like, moody yet danceable post-punk that was mostly distinguished by Björk’s astonishing vocals. The video, in which a tangle of emotions cascade across her elfin features with every shriek and growl, made Björk a star in a way that the rest of her band never quite caught up to — so it wasn’t a shock when they split up in 1992, paving the way for her solo career.

On her first album, Debut, it’s still Björk’s voice that commands the most attention — which isn’t a knock on her early music (or The Sugarcubes’ for that matter); it’s just extremely hard to write or arrange songs in a way that’s half as compelling as a full-throated Björk high note. Someone had the brilliant idea around this time to shoot a music video that’s literally just her dancing around the back of a flatbed truck as it slowly drives through the streets of New York. The camera never moves, but it’s one of the most iconic videos of the MTV era, because her performance is that passionate and kinetic. Music seems to possess Björk in a way us mere mortals never get to experience it.

If she’d continued to make songs like “Big Time Sensuality” — a bouncy piece of early ’90s electronic pop now forever known to more casual fans as the “dancing around on the back of a truck song” — Björk probably could’ve become the next Madonna. Heck, with her voice, she could’ve been bigger than Madonna if she’d been so inclined. But even on Debut, her experimental streak was already firmly in place — especially in other music videos like “Human Behaviour,” her first collaboration with the great Michel Gondry, later of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind fame. Imagine seeing this on MTV in 1993 and thinking, “Wait, is that the Sugarcubes girl? Is that a claymation hedgehog? What the fuck is going on?”

Over her next two albums, Post and Homogenic, Björk developed a reputation for sonic shapeshifting, tackling everything from industrial (“Army of Me”) to trip-hop (“Enjoy”) to chamber-pop (“Joga”) to big-band jazz (“It’s Oh So Quiet,” an old Betty Hutton chestnut taken into bonkers territory by Björk’s shrieks). She also cranked out a remarkable string of groundbreaking videos with some of the top directors of the ’90s, including Gondry (“Hyperballad,” “Bachelorette”) Spike Jonze (“It’s Oh So Quiet”) and Paul White (“Hunter”).

I’m tempted to just post like 10 of Björk’s ’90s videos here because they’re all so great, but if I had to pick just one (well, two, since I already posted “Human Behaviour”) to represent how awesome and weird Björk’s work was in this period, it would have to be “All Is Full of Love,” a spooky ballad co-produced by ambient/trip-hop artist Howie B with a video by Chris Cunningham, one of the all-time music video greats (also responsible for Aphex Twin‘s “Windowlicker” and “Come to Daddy” clips). The robots-in-love video is beautiful and sexy and still kinda disturbing even 20 years later, which considering how acclimated we’ve all gotten to this kind of CGI is a pretty remarkable achievement.

As weird as Björk’s music videos could get in the ’90s, her music remained, for the most part, pretty accessible until 1997’s Homogenic, when she abandoned any overt pop elements in favor of a more dramatic, cinematic sound — lots of strings, slowly unfolding melodies and poetic lyrics that were evocative but oblique to the point of impenetrability (“I’m a fountain of blood in the shape of a girl,” from “Bachelorette,” being the most famous and striking example). She doubled down on that sound with 2001’s Vespertine, on which she took the very cagey extra step of deliberately selecting only instruments that maintain their integrity, relatively speaking, when digitally compressed — celestas, harps, clavichords and “microbeats” made from found sounds, a technique also used by some of her collaborators, including the aforementioned Matmos and another musique concrète master, Matthew Herbert. (If you’re not familiar with Herbert’s amazing work, go watch this mini-documentary about his 2011 album One Pig right now. We’ll wait.)

A word about Björk’s collaborators, because she’s had a lot of interesting ones (Tricky of Massive Attack and Graham Massey of 808 State among them) and they inevitably get brought it up in any discussion of her music, including this one: That’s just what they are, collaborators. She’s fully in control of her own music and has been for most of her career — certainly since Vespertine, on which she’s credited as the sole producer on 10 of the album’s 12 tracks. But since she’s a woman and since of most of her best-known collaborators are men, they tend to get credit for her sound in a way that doesn’t happen with male artists — a double standard Björk herself has called out repeatedly in interviews. “With the last album [Kanye West] did, he got all the best beatmakers on the planet at the time to make beats for him. A lot of the time, he wasn’t even there. Yet no one would question his authorship for a second,” she told Pitchfork in 2015. “I did 80% of the beats on Vespertine and it took me three years to work on that album, because it was all microbeats — it was like doing a huge embroidery piece. Matmos came in the last two weeks and added percussion on top of the songs, but they didn’t do any of the main parts, and they are credited everywhere as having done the whole album.” So let’s be clear: Yes, Björk chooses interesting collaborators to work with and they have some impact on her sound. But at the end of the day, most of that weird shit you’re hearing on her records is all her.

Since Vespertine, Björk’s albums have tended to be highly conceptual in nature. Medulla used lots of layered vocals (including some from Mike Patton, various beatboxers, and Inuit throat singer Tanya Gillis) to express something about the human body: “I wanted the record to be like muscle, blood, flesh,” she told one interviewer. Her next, Volta, was more percussive, featuring contributions from hip-hop producers Danja and Timbaland (yes, that Timbaland — who is now the answer to the trivia question, “What do Björk and Justin Timberlake have in common?”).

Her 2011 album Biophilia was arguably her strangest and most ambitious project to date — not just an album but a whole multimedia art project, with different apps for each track, and themes built around natural phenomena as metaphors for the human condition. She also experimented with various unusual and custom-made instruments — including a Tesla coil on “Thunderbolt” and something called a gravity harp on “Solstice” — as well as odd time signatures. Three of its tracks are in 17/8 time, which sounds like a music-school dare but does actually give tunes like “Crystalline” a pleasantly off-kilter, elliptical feel.

Biophilia also features what may be my all-time favorite Björk video, for the track “Mutual Core,” which is all about how human relationships are like plate tectonics, or something. Directed by a genius visual artist named Andrew Thomas Huang, it uses CGI animation effects to make what appears sand, rock and yarn perform an elaborate mating ritual.

Björk’s two most recent albums, Vulnicura and Utopia, were co-produced by a Venezuelan electronic artist called Arca who’s pretty amazing and weird in his own right; check out this video (warning: seizure-inducing strobes for days) for proof. His involvement seems to have pushed Björk into some of her darkest and most experimental territory yet. Here’s an especially far-out track from Vulnicura, “Family,” which also features production work from U.K. ambient/drone artist The Haxan Cloak. Creeping doom Björk is my favorite kind of Björk — though it takes a delightful, unexpected twist around the 3:08 mark.

Vulnicura was a breakup album, which could account for its dark tone. Utopia, released last year, is warmer and more hopeful (Björk called it, slyly, her “dating record”). But its music, which features a shit-ton of flutes, is just as bonkers. And its videos are, if anything, some of her weirdest yet. If you’re both repulsed and oddly turned on by this clip for “Arisen My Senses” (directed by frequent Arca collaborator Jesse Kanda, who specializes in creating misshapen, organic forms), don’t worry — you’re not alone. No? It’s just me who’s oddly turned on? OK, I can live with that.

I’ve seen Björk live twice — once at Coachella in 2007, where I remember her playing a massive light-up keyboard that I can’t seem to find any video of, and once here in L.A. at a festival called FYF last year. I found both performances to be a little underwhelming — but to be honest, I didn’t really “get” Björk in 2007, and even since coming to her appreciate her music more, I find it hard to connect with at festivals, where many of its subtleties get lost, in my opinion. Not that my opinion matters — at both shows, thousands of fans around were eating up her every move. And anyway, it’s not the job of an avant-garde artist like Björk to be a crowd-pleaser. She’s always defied expectations, both with her music and how she presents it — and if sometimes punters like me don’t “get it,” that’s par for the course.

Maybe I would have felt differently about her FYF performance if it had featured the woodland creature flute army she brought with her to a recent appearance on Later … With Jools Holland. It was her first TV performance in eight years and a great reminder that, no matter how high she ascends into the pantheon of contemporary musical artists, Björk remains weird as fuck.

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Weird Live Review: Sparks

Sparks at the Ace Hotel

It’s not every day you get to hear music by any band on our Weird List rendered by a 38-piece orchestra. It’s even more remarkable when that band is Sparks, the quirk-pop duo of Ron and Russell Mael, and even more remarkable when the focus of the event isn’t one of their more symphonic efforts like Lil’ Beethoven but their 1974 glam-rock opus Kimono My House, which featured nary a string section but plenty of fuzzy guitar solos and Russell Mael’s swooping falsetto vocals at their most mock-operatic.

The Mael brothers first gave Kimono My House the orchestral treatment last December in London, and decided to follow up those shows with a similar two-night run in their hometown of Los Angeles. The setting for both performances was the suitably stately Theatre at Ace Hotel, formerly the United Artists movie palace, a spectacularly ornate room with Gothic decorations nearly as elaborate as the music from Kimono My House.

As I usually do these days, I wrote the full review of the show for my day job over at L.A. Weekly. So you can read my full account on their site. Suffice it to say that while the orchestral reimagining of Kimono My House, most of the highlights (for me, anyway) came in the show’s second half, when they played an assortment of songs spanning Sparks’ amazing four-decade catalog. And at least one of those highlights involved a monkey. (And no, I’m not referring to Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos. Although he did insert himself into the proceedings. I’m still not sure how I feel about that Sparks/Franz collab.)

Get yourself a personalized music video from Rasputina’s Melora Creager

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Have you ever watched a Rasputina video and thought to yourself, “This is cool and all, but I’d be way more into it if Melora was playing cello in a full Barney the Purple Dinosaur costume”? Well, now’s your chance to ask her to do it.

Yep, starting this month, Melora Creager is offering to shoot personalized music videos for any Rasputina song. The price tag for each video is $350, which sounds steep until you consider that’s probably how much you paid for that abstract landscape painting you bought at Art Walk after drinking too much Two Buck Chuck. And while that crappy painting doesn’t take requests, Melora does: You can suggest costume elements, give her acting directions (the examples she gives are “extra-sad” and “nerdily seductive”) and even ask her to change the lyrics to better suit your boundless ego (“Andy of the Grotto” has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?). “You cannot dictate what I make,” she explains on her website, “but any suggestion by you, the collector, will inspire me and lend direction to the piece.” Just don’t be the first douchebag to ask her to take her clothes off, OK? This is art, people.

Watch Melora’s infomercial below for more about her Personalized Music Videos© and visit Rasputina’s “Handicraft Shoppe” if you have the scratch to request one. And be sure to check out the sample personalized video she made for her boyfriend Gabe. As you can see, the production values ain’t exactly Bruckheimer, but it’s pretty entertaining nonetheless.

Sparks help Gemma Ray sing Sparks

When U.K. songstress Gemma Ray decided to cover a couple of tunes by one of her favorite weird bands (and ours), Sparks, she got a little more than she bargained for. The Sparks boys were so taken with her torchy vocals on two of their songs, “How Do I Get to Carnegie Hall” and “Eaten by the Monster of Love,” they decided to “Sparks-ify” them by adding their own quirky arrangements and production touches. Call it Sparks remixing Gemma Ray covering Sparks. Or something like that. Actually don’t overthink it, just head over to The Quietus, where you can stream both tracks.

Ray also shot a silly but rather awesome video for “How Do I Get to Carnegie Hall,” which recently premiered on NME.com. We must confess to not knowing much about Gemma Ray, but she sure is prettier than Sparks’ Mael brothers (sorry, guys).

The “Gemma Ray Sings Sparks With Sparks” single comes out Feb. 21st on Bronze Rat Records. You can pre-order the 7″ vinyl here.

As for Sparks? They’re still tinkering with their Ingmar Bergman musical. Those crazy kids!

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Rasputina

Let’s be clear here: We’re not including Rasputina on TWBITW just because they’re a cello band. Lots of rock bands actually feature cellos (Avett Brothers, Belle & Sebastian, Ra Ra Riot, etc.) and another band, Apocalyptica, even uses the same format as Rasputina (multiple cellos + drum kit) to play something they call “symphonic metal,” which is arguably weirder that what Rasputina has traditionally stood for, i.e. chicks in quasi-Victorian garb doing sort of gothy chamber music.

No, the reason Rasputina rates a spot on The Weird List boils down to one thing: Melora Creager. Over Rasputina’s 15+ year history, she has proven herself time and again to be one of the most fabulously weird, eccentric characters in all of music. Without her unique songwriting style, her quirky obsessions with historical emphera, and her ingenuity for coaxing new sounds out of the cello, Rasputina would be a one-trick pony that wore out its welcome ages ago. Instead, they’ve managed to still sound fresh over five studio albums and various EPs and live discs. (The fact the band’s lineup has evolved even faster than Creager’s increasingly fanciful costumes probably hasn’t hurt, either.)

Rasputina is probably best-known for doing cellified (is that a word? is now!) versions of classic rock songs like “Barracuda” and Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll,” and they’ve also been known to breathe new life into creepy old folk songs (“Wicked Dickie,” a little dirge about “an old man who had but one cow,” is my personal favorite). Creager even released a limited-edition recording called Ancient Cross-Dressing Songs that features three…well, ancient cross-dressing songs. Like we said, this woman knows her ephemera.

But it’s Creager’s original songs that really make Rasputina stand out. Many of them delve into very specific historical material, like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire or the Year Without a Summer; some are based on 19th century pulp fiction (the truly excellent “My Captivity by Savages“) and other esoteric source material; some employ historical figures but are apparently just the product of Creager’s lurid imagination (“Incident in a Medical Clinic,” which casts Mary Todd Lincoln as a fevered madwoman leading an army of blimps…no, really). Other song titles speak for themselves: “Momma Was an Opium Smoker,” “Transylvanian Concubine,” “The Donner Party.” Then there’s “Choose Me for a Champion,” which is based on an Osama Bin Laden speech. Yep, for Creager, pretty much nothing is off-limits.

The best part? Much of Rasputina’s music is actually downright catchy, despite its frequently bizarre subject matter and the fact that most of what you’re hearing is cellos. Okay, the song about Josef Mengele is a bit of a downer, but much of the Rasputina catalog is actually quite beautiful, or rockin’, or often both.

Rasputina’s sixth studio album, Sister Kinderhook, comes out this summer on Creager’s own Filthy Bonnet label. We’re stockpiling absinthe in preparation for a marathon listening session the day it comes out.

Apart from a rather ridiculous clip dating back to their brief stint on Columbia Records in the late ’90s, Rasputina haven’t done much in the way of music videos–which is too bad, because Creager’s doll-like features and steam-punky fashion sense are pretty photogenic. Still, this live clip of a track from the group’s best (IMHO) album, Frustration Plantation, gives you a pretty good idea of what their all about. We assume she’s running her cello through some kind of guitar pedal to get that effect, but however she’s doing it, it totally makes us want to rock out–in a top-hatted, Victorian sort of way. Maybe snort a line of snuff off a chorus girl’s bloomers?

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Sparks

Some bands, when you first encounter them, might seem a bit quirky, but they don’t strike you as especially weird. Then you find out they’ve been at this for 40 years—and during that time, they’ve gone from everything to glam-rock to disco to New Wave to chamber-pop to (no joke) Swedish radio musicals. Oh, and one of the guys favors creepy Hitler/John Waters mustaches.

Sparks was started in 1968—1968!—by a pair of brothers from L.A. named Ron and Russell Mael. Originally calling themselves Halfnelson, they signed to Todd Rundgren’s Bearsville record label, changed their name to Sparks, and put out a couple of albums of eccentric but unremarkable, Pink Floyd-influenced psychedelic rock. Their first big break came after they parted ways with Bearsville, relocated to London, and got involved in the glam-rock scene. Their two 1974 albums, Kimono My House and Propaganda, were big hits in the U.K., even landing the band on Top of the Pops. Their music from this era was sort of a weird mix of Roxy Music, T. Rex and bubblegum pop, and seemed to anticipate the rise of New Wave.

By the time the rest of the rock world had caught up to Sparks, the Mael brothers had moved on, teaming up with disco/electronica pioneer Giorgio Moroder for their synth-heavy 1979 album, No. 1 in Heaven. The band continued to explore various synth-pop and New Wave styles for the next decade, scoring their first U.S. hit in 1983 with “Cool Places,” a song they recorded with one of their biggest American fans, Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go’s.

After a late ’80s/early ’90s hiatus, the band resurfaced in 1994 with Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins. Although not a commercial success—except, for some reason, in Germany—it was one of the most well-reviewed albums of Sparks’ career and was instrumental in establishing the Mael brothers as icons of campy, outsidery pop music. Ron, the principal lyricist, was writing increasingly eccentric and sometimes flat-out goofy songs like “(When I Kiss You) I Hear Charlie Parker Playing” and “Now That I Own the BBC”—both of which kind of sound like send-ups of the Pet Shop Boys, except that the Pet Shop Boys actually stole most of their ideas from Sparks in the first place.

Since then, Sparks have released an album of alternate versions of their own songs (called, appropriately, Plagiarism, and featuring cameos from Mike Patton, Erasure and Jimmy Sommerville), an experimental symphonic album called Lil’ Beethoven, a satirical concept album about modern romance called Hello Young Lovers, and this year, a radio musical commissioned by Swedish National Radio called The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman. Clearly, these guys will try pretty much anything. In 2008, they even performed all 21 of their albums on consecutive nights in London (Ingmar Bergman was album #22).

Taken individually, any one Sparks song—or even any single album—isn’t that weird. With this band, it’s more of a cumulative effect thing. Still, much of the material on 2006’s outstanding Hello Young Lovers stands as some of the weirdest stuff they’ve ever recorded—and how many bands can claim to be out-weirding themselves 38 years into their career? To quote the song featured in the video below, “Screw the past!”

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Danielson

danielson

Most people, when they think of Christian rock, probably think of the most bland, boring bands imaginable–groups like Jars of Clay or Casting Crowns or even (shudder) Creed. At best, they might try to claim that U2 qualifies as a Christian band, just because most of the members go to church and Bono mentions Jesus every once in awhile. But it turns out, there are actually a lot of interesting, creative and often downright wacky groups out there trying to spread the Good News through music. And none of them are more wacky or creative than Danielson.

Started by New Jersey kid Daniel Smith as a college thesis project, the group originally called Danielson Famile (pronounced and sometimes mispelled “Danielson Family”) first got some attention with their first album for Tooth & Nail Records in 1997. Called “Tell Another Joke on the Old Choppin’ Block,” the record stood out for its sunny, occasionally spastic, call-and-response chamber-pop, and Smith’s pipsqueak vocals, which kind of sounded like a cross between Tim DeLaughter (Polyphonic Spree) and Elmo (Sesame Street). Live, the band stood out even more: they usually performed in matching nurses uniforms (which, Smith explained, served as a “visual reminder of the healing taking place”). Later, under the name Br. Danielson, Smith took to appearing onstage in a nine-foot fruit tree costume. Apparently, there’s some Christian symbolism behind it, although it’s kind of lost on us godless heathens here at TWBITW, who just find it endlessly, awesomely hilarious.

It’s been a few years since Danielson released any new material, although they’ve kept busy with a two-CD retrospective and starring in their own documentary. They returned to the studio recently to record a new 7″ featuring a song called “Moment Soakers”; it’s due out November 17, but in the meantime, you can watch a making-of video on the band’s website.

This song and video aren’t Danielson’s weirdest by a long shot, but it gives you a pretty good sense of what they’re all about…and it’s too fantastic not to include.

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