A college friend of mine once came up with the most diabolical scenario imaginable. “What if”, he wondered aloud, “Fred Schneider and the annoying guy from the Sugarcubes made an album together?” “The annoying guy” in Iceland’s first famous rock band, also known as Einar Örn, was the bane of many a Sugarcubes fan’s existence. It often seemed his primary objective was to steal the spotlight from the band’s main vocalist, soon-to-be-superstar Björk. Instead of singing, Einar recited bizarre rants with a thick Scandinavian accent; sometimes he just screamed. While his mutterings were occasionally funny and his contributions on trumpet added depth to the band’s arty pop, most of time he was just a distraction from the real deal. But if Einar was often maligned, at least he made his presence known; the other members of the group were largely (and unfairly) relegated to the background. It certainly wasn’t because they weren’t colorful; the level of melodrama in the Sugarcubes easily rivaled that of Fleetwood Mac or Jefferson Airplane. Guitarist Thor Eldon had an ex (Björk) and current (keyboardist Magga) wife in the band. Bassist Bragi divorced his wife, the twin sister of drummer Siggi’s wife, and married Einar in what was touted as the first gay marriage in pop music, although reportedly neither man is gay.
In spite of all these shenanigans, most people’s attention gravitated to the band’s front-woman. With her pixie-like looks, dazzling vocal range, and mesmerizing stage presence, it was hard not to focus on Björk. The English-speaking world had never seen another performer like her, and two decades later that still holds true. All the same, the Sugarcubes were very much a group, and for a short time, as Rolling Stone famously proclaimed, the coolest band in the world. Unfortunately, it didn’t last long. After emerging, fully formed, with the lauded debut Life’s Too Good in 1988, the Sugarcubes sank into cutesy eccentricity with Here Today, Tomorrow, Next Week in 1989. By the time they regrouped for the overproduced Stick Around for Joy in 1992, it was a case of too little, too late. Björk formally launched her solo career the following year, and it wasn’t long before people stopped referring to her as “the woman from the Sugarcubes” and started referring to the Sugarcubes as “the band where Björk got her start”. Such is the fickle world of pop music.
Given the band’s uneven resume, it’s not likely that the two new Sugarcubes DVD releases from Rhino will launch a revival, but they will be of interest to fans of Björk who might not be familiar with her earlier work or old fans of the band who want to upgrade their VHS collections. The DVD is simply a digital-age update on the Sugarcubes’ previous VHS video compilation, unimaginatively titled The Video. Like its predecessor, the new disc contains all the videos from the band’s first two albums, but adds the three videos from Stick Around for Joy as bonus tracks. While it’s nice to have all the videos in one place, one wonders why Rhino didn’t just include the Joy videos as part of the regular track list; it’s annoying and disruptive to the flow of the music to make separate visits to the DVD menu to watch these tracks. Otherwise, the only thing that makes them difficult to watch is the decline in quality of the songs. Just like the Sugarcubes’ career itself, the collection is front-loaded with wonderful art-rock like “Birthday” and “Deus” followed by self-consciously cutesy fare like “Planet” and “Eat the Menu” and ending with the slick and completely forgettable “Walkabout” and “Vitamin”. A few of these videos were staples on MTV at the time of their release, but what’s most striking about them now is how cheap and simplistic they seem in comparison to today’s big-budget videos. There are some Icelandic landscapes, lots of on-stage footage, air guitar, and, in a more extravagant moment, hula dancers atop a grounded airplane. A few of the videos are fun (“Motorcrash”, “Regina”, “Luftgitar”), a few are repetitive (“Eat the Menu”, “Hit”), and none of them could qualify as art, as many of Björk’s solo clips do.
Live Zabor is another DVD reissue of a previously released VHS collection. The disc features live performances recorded in 1988-89 in London, Reykjavik, and Auburn, Alabama interspersed with offbeat monologues from each of the band members. Thanks in part to these interview clips, Live Zabor provides a better sense of who the individual band members are than the videos, which often focus on Björk and Einar, and gives a glimpse into their eccentric sense of humor. The quality of the footage is good, especially from an artistic standpoint, since much of it is culled from the band’s classic first album and the tracks from Here Today sound much better in the live setting. It’s just unfortunate that Rhino wasn’t more careful with the packaging. While the label says there is an Icelandic version of “Birthday” included as a bonus track, it doesn’t seem to be anywhere on the disc. There are, however, Icelandic versions of “Plastic”, “Eat the Menu”, and “Speed Is the Key”, although the label doesn’t indicate that these songs are not in English. (In truth, this shouldn’t be off-putting to English speakers, since the songs actually sound better in Icelandic.) The bigger problem is that the credits telling where each track was filmed don’t seem to correspond to what’s actually on the disc. These goofs, coupled with the way the Stick Around for Joy tracks are treated as an afterthought on The DVD, make it appear as though the collections were put together without much care. Basically, these DVDs don’t improve on the previous VHS releases much, but at least their arrival ensures that the Sugarcubes won’t drift further into obscurity.