Men are from Mars, Björk's Volta is for Venus
I have some Björk memories stowed on shelves and in crates. There's the signed copy of the Sugarcubes' "Birthday" 12-inch from the days of the group's English-language interview with Melody Maker, when Björk showed up late and apologized with the immortal first words "I was shitting" (a moment that all who mistook her for a cute elf should have noted). And I've got a great teenage Kodak shot of a friend who helped start riot grrrl long before she picked up a guitar, sitting on Björk's lap.
But whither Björk? Has she indeed withered to nothing but old soulless art zombie bones because Matthew Barney took a flensing knife to her whale of a voice and cut away her personality? Those were the questions a semilapsed Björk maniac and I leaped to the minute her new album, Volta (Atlantic), blasted from his car speakers with its brash yet mannered call to arms, "Earth Intruders." Here it was, a track that united Björk and Timbaland! Ten years ago, swept up by my love for Post and Homogenic (both Elektra; 1995 and 1997) and the late Aaliyah's even greater One in a Million (Blackground, 1996), I'd have been rapt. Now we both shrugged and wished we could wish ourselves into truly enjoying what we were hearing.
The good news about Volta is that it gets much better as it goes along. The bad news is that it takes a while to get someplace vital or unconventional by Björk's standards. The arrival occurs when the heavily processed guitar riff and seesawing volume levels of "Declare Independence" kick in and Björk begins issuing commands like a less moldy and more melodic Peaches, a Chick on Speed with pagan fire in her blood, or a Cobra Killer without a sense of the ridiculous. Here, at least and at last, her flag-raising and megaphone-crackling shouts are matched by musical momentum, so that by the end of the track you'd have to be dead not to want to join her cheerleading squad.
She's spelling out F-E-M-I-N-I-S-M, but in a manner much different from that of the riot grrrl schools with whom she once swam upstream, against dull dude rock currents, though sporting savvier raver gear. Volta's glossy color cover art and some of Björk's comments about the album suggest she's made a collection of wise party anthems for girls of the next generation. Her dedication to the feminine is there, no doubt, yet her mood and the music surrounding it are until "Declare Independence" hits often morose. The Henryk Góreckiinfluenced horn symphonics of a track such as "The Dull Flame of Desire" were mined a decade ago by Björk's lesser contemporaries of the time, Lamb, and her duet partner on it, Antony (Hegarty, of Antony and the Johnsons), engages her in a maddening war of affectations. She has more range and emotion; he should be fined for grievous vibrato abuse. In the end, they're both stampeded by the drumroll cameo of Lightning Bolt's Brian Chippendale. It's epic, all right.
Elsewhere, Björk occasionally dips into the orientalist waters near where her husband's recent ship of a movie, Drawing Restraint 9, sank much too slowly. Built around Min Xiao-Fen's skittering pipa sounds, "I See Who You Are" gives that film's anatomy lessons a less violent and possibly lesbian twist, staying chilly, while "Hope," another underwhelming collabo with Timbaland, further proves his ego is bigger than his imagination these days. So what's to love? Before the anarchic blast of "Declare Independence," Volta's highlight is "Vertebrae by Vertebrae"; the sinister symphonic dissonance that was Björk's métier during parts of Homogenic and most of her Dancer in the Dark numbers comes back, and she's more than ready for it, unleashing her wildest howls. Instead of Górecki, the deathly cloud formations of Alban Berg come to mind during the song's interludes. But Björk is no naive Lulu she uses such a scene to try out some primal vocal and back-stretching calisthenics.
Such signs of life are a step in the right direction, away from the nadir of 2004's Medúlla (Elektra), which was doomed from its conception as an all-vocal album. Björk has a tendency to overestimate her singing range, as any Ella Fitzgerald fan who has heard the Icelandic one try to get through "Like Someone in Love" on sheer winking cuteness can attest to. Fortunately, this same belief in her power has made for some thrilling songs. Volta only has a couple, but a couple are better than none. *
With Joanna Newsom and Ghost Digital
Sat/19, 7:30 p.m., $26.50$70.50
1 Amphitheatre Pkwy., Mountain View