[24 August 2009]
Björk has always been fiercely independent and dedicated to trying new things. She’s also been well-aware of her hardcore fan base, releasing a bunch of low-profile live albums over the years. Voltaic is a much more high-profile release, a live compilation of her 2007-8 world tour and massive stage show. But the hardcore have not been neglected. For them, the two-disc CD/DVD combo has expanded to a four-disc set with a CD compiling remixes of tracks from Volta and a DVD containing the album’s videos, plus the winner and nine runners-up of the fan competition to create a video for “Innocence”. This review will only focus on the two main discs from the standard double-disc release, however.
First up: the CD. Instead of just recording a live show and putting it out, Björk and her 14-piece touring ensemble went into the studio and made live recordings of 11 songs. The audio here is crisp and perfectly balanced. Björk’s voice comes out on top of the mix, but doesn’t overwhelm the band. And it is a band, although decidedly not a typical rock band. The Volta tour found Björk traveling with a ten-piece, all-female, all-Icelandic brass section (three trumpets, three French horns, three trombones, and a tuba) as well as a percussionist, keyboardist, and longtime collaborators Mark Bell and Damian Taylor on electronics. This unusual lineup allows for some amazingly precise recreations of Björk’s album tracks, while other songs show up in very different incarnations.
The CD opens with two brass-heavy tracks, “Wanderlust” and “Hunter”, both of which are quite faithful to the original versions. “The Pleasure is All Mine”, from the all-vocal album Medúlla, is next, and while the song is essentially the same, it sounds quite different with electronic beats and brass chords replacing the beatboxing and chorale. A pair of songs from Post, “Army of Me” and “I Miss You”, lose none of their urgency in these recordings, although “I Miss You” starts off quieter and more understated than previous versions. But then the live horns give the track an unexpectedly jazzy feel in the song’s second half. “All is Full of Love” and “Pagan Poetry” are both driven by expressive vocal performances, from both Björk and the brass section on background vocals. “Pagan Poetry” keeps its other essential element, that frosty, delicate high harpsichord sound. Most of Volta‘s high points also make their way onto the CD basically unchanged, including “Innocence”, “Earth Intruders”, and “Declare Independence”.
Those looking for a live greatest hits-style album will be a bit disappointed by the CD portion of Voltaic, which misses as many of Björk’s big songs as it hits. The DVD, however, manages to get to almost all of them. Well, all of them except for “Human Behavior”, “Big Time Sensuality”, “It’s Oh So Quiet”, and Medúlla‘s bouncy closer, “Triumph of a Heart”. Everything else is here, though. Recorded live at a show in Paris, the DVD captures the wild, colorful insanity of the Volta show. The brass section is outfitted in multi-hued dresses and face paint reminiscent of the Volta cover art, with Björk herself wearing the most colorful outfit of all. Sadly, the men in the band, hidden behind drum kits, keyboards, and racks of electonics, have no fancy outfits and are mostly wearing T-shirts and jeans. Björk stands in front of it all, bouncing barefoot around the stage and moving her hands energetically along to the beat when she isn’t singing.
Older material, particularly from Homogenic, fares particularly well in this setting. “Jöga” is especially warm and exciting with the live horns, while “Bachelorette” is intense and dramatic. Post‘s “Hyberballad” is significantly rearranged, but it retains its enchanting melody and stuttering beats, and gets a huge reaction and singalong from the crowd. The main set closes with the apocalyptic techno of “Pluto”, featuring green laser lights shooting out into the crowd and the brass at the front of the stage dancing along with Björk.
The DVD is a very accurate representation of the concert I saw at 2007’s Austin City Limits Music Festival, although the editing gives scant screentime to the bizarre Reactable. A flat, circular electronic instrument that is manipulated by touch and by placing differently shaped objects on top of it, the Reactable is visually striking and exceedingly strange, but there are only short glimpses of it here, mostly near the end of the show. Other than that, though, this is a great set. Of special note is “Declare Independence”, a speedy, noisy track that was a bit out of place on Volta, which works much better here as the closing track of the CD and the encore of the DVD.
A bonus on the DVD is a separate performance from a church in Reykjavik. Stripped of costumes and most of the electronics, the short set features much more sedate material, including “Pneumonia”, “My Juvenile”, and “Mouth’s Cradle”. Backed by the brass section and sometimes a full choir, this concert couldn’t be more different than the Paris show, and it does an excellent job of showing Björk’s versatility. Voltaic is also offered as a single CD, but one really needs this two-disc CD/DVD release to get the full-bodied live experience.