We say: Is is possible for experimental music be formulaic? Can it end up being downright dull?
Most critics are gushing about Bjork's new album like it's some cutting-edge piece of art, especially since every song comes with its own iPad app. I haven't seen those apps, but after four times through this album, I'm ready to put it away and never listen to it again.
Sure, I know Iceland's Bjork is never going to return to the fun and playful ways the world loved so much on her Sugarcubes albums and first two solo ones. Two decades on she's grown up, mellowed, and is apparently having trouble getting off the couch. I don't think there's one song on her latest that exceeds 80 beats per minute. They all follow a distressingly similar pattern: put up some percussive laptop tech samples, add a vocal melody, and layer lots of vocals on top of that to create some depth. Pause or bring the tempo down as soon as anything starts sounding too much like a conventional song.
All those layered vocals also happen to be Bjork's, which after a while comes off sounding like the Oompah Loompahs of the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory movie remake: a bunch of computer-generated clones singing the same song.
Sure, some of the pieces are interesting bits of musical art. The opening one starts off in a promising fashion, with music box tinkling and Bjork's typical half-unhinged vocals over the top of that and a classical guitar. But it never evolves from there apart from adding the Oompah Loompah choir. It's like a pretty aquarium with fish swimming around: pretty, but you don't want to spend more than a few minutes concentrating on it. The next one, "Thunderbolt," is the most engaging song on the album. It stops dead in its tracks at times, but is like a good Kate Bush song of old, with orchestral structure and a haunting line to ground it all: "May I, should I, can I, or have I too often...craving miracles?" This one is Bjork at her best: edgy and experimental, washing over us in sound waves that keep us hanging on for more. "Crystalline" actually gets a groove going for a little while, in a laptop techno sort of way, then drops it abruptly, like the whole idea of a groove is too conventional.
Some songs are just plain too long. "Cosmogony" and "Virus" would be fine three-minute songs if tightened up. Minus the editing, they come off more like a movie score without a movie. Making things worse, the 5:50 "Hollow" dirge gets an extended version as a bonus track. (With an October release, maybe it's meant for the speakers in front of your house on Halloween.)
The overall effect is an album that is all work, no payoff. It's downright hard to get through it from start to finish, akin to reading James Joyce for a college literature class. You feel dumb for not appreciating it more and struggle to get through it because there's nothing there to grab onto and feel. The arrangements are musically pushing the envelope at times, perhaps, but after a few albums of this stuff already, the effect is more predictable than surprising. It's a soundscape we've mostly heard before, but the real problem is that it feels like one made for the mind, not for the heart.
Art students and hipsters will flock to Biofilia and declare how cool it is as they play with it on their iPad, but for those who want a musical collection to move them physically or emotionally, those apps seem downright required—to mash up the music and create something you'll want to listen to more than once.
MarchFourth Marching Band
We say: Band geeks of the world unite!
Portland, Oregon's MarchFourth shows what can happen if the creative kids from the marching band get together and recruit an electric guitar player and bass player to come along for the ride. It's really hard these days to come up with something that sound fresh, but I promise you, this is some craaaazzzy sh*t. We don't normally feature bands from the U.S. or Western Europe in these reviews since they already dominate the world pop music scene, but when somebody comes along and creates something ground-breaking, my ears perk up.
MarchFourth Marching Band has percussionists, horn players, electric bass, and guitar. There are "about 20" members in the band and the live experience throws in stilt walkers, fire breathers, andacrobats. This would be nothing more than a good gimmick if the music sucked, but thankfully it doesn't. Every song on this album can stand on its own and some of them can even be called bonafide dance songs. Much of the music has a clear New Orleans influence, mixed with the power of a big marching band taking the field. But there are also plenty of flavors from other places that are good at throwing a party, like Rio and the Balkans. Throw in some good ole rock-and-roll and this is one fun band. Who else follows a baritone sax riff with distorted vocals and then brings in a Tower of Power style horn section?
The band self-produced its first two albums, but this time they brought in Steve Berlin of Los Lobos and his expert hand wedged this loose collective into a smoking band with structured songs. Even the silly "Cowbell" song (inspired by the classic Saturday Night Live skit) sounds professional here and the slinky "Rose City Strut" that follows leaves enough air between the instruments to let every one of them shine. "Delhi Belly" starts off like a great marching band song, each layer building on the one before it to create a wall of sound. Then it hits a groove that must surely get the crowd moving in a live setting.
That live show looks like a real blast and I'm going to find a way to go see them this coming weekend in my town. (Watch the Perceptive Travel blog for a report.) MarchFourth Marching Band is on tour a lot, so they may be bringing the spectacle to your city as well. See tour dates on the official band site.
Rumba, Mambo, Cha Cha Cha
We say: As cool as your dad's vintage shirts from the 50s.
Like fads and fashions, musical styles often climb and decline on the coolness scale depending on how long they've been away—and whether the listener is old enough to remember the first go-round. For people who associate the Cuban ballroom musical styles of rumba, mambo, and cha cha cha with I Love Lucy and their parents' console record player, this music seems goofy and old-fashioned. For those with younger parents, however, it's can be retro music that evokes a time of suave glamour.
This Putumayo collection is a strong one, giving a good overview of some of the most popular musical styles from the pre-Castro Cuban days (and before Rock-n-Roll took over), when influence on U.S. dance halls was strong. In basic terms, rumba generally refers to slow versions of Cuban son music, cha cha cha is a musical form designed for a specific dance step, and mambo is a catch-all mongrel mixture of European and African styles that is more uptempo than the others, with syncopated horn arrangements. All three spread up the East Coast of the U.S. in the middle of the last century and really took off in New York City. They still survive all these decades later whenever a Cuban (or Cuban-inspired) band takes the stage.
As is common with these Putumayo collections, diversity always wins out over purity, so Cuban (and immigrant) groups like Tradicuba and Asere have to be joined by the requisite left-field entries from France, Scotland, Belgium, and Russia. Apparently this is an attempt to convince us that the music has a worldwide appeal. Thankfully you won't notice any of that if you don't read the liner notes. The Euro ska band Internationals gets the groove right on "E.L.S." and if you closed your eyes and listened, you would swear the nine whities from Russia doing "Pa' Mantener Tradicion" came from the decrepit streets of Havana.
If you really want to set the retro tone at your next barbeque though, cue up "Potpourri de Cha Cha Cha," which is a medley of well-known songs from the genre, or Mambo #5---a smash hit in 1945 that was made famous again more recently by Lou Bega. Put on a Panama hat, pull out a vintage tropical shirt, and mix up a fruity cocktail. Mambo!
Editor Tim Leffel is a former music biz marketer who became a travel writer and author of four books, including The World's Cheapest Destinations and Travel Writing 2.0. See his last batch of world music reviews here.