Iceland’s Björk Gudmundsdóttir sings with the nonlinear abandon of a jazz vocalist, squeals like a gradeschooler on Christmas morning and purrs with the feral lustiness of a big cat in pursuit of a meal. The spaced-out kewpie-doll vocal mannerisms can be wearying, but Björk’s devotion to quirkiness has led to some of the most forward-looking dance-pop of the ’90s.
Debut (the title is a misnomer: she actually recorded an album of children’s songs at age twelve) is as much a triumph of Nellee Hooper’s skills as a producer as it is of Björk’s vocal abilities. With the Sugarcubes, the singer’s vocabulary of warbles, trills and grrrs was just another layer in her bandmates’ cacophony. Hooper, who redefined dance rhythm in his sensual Soul II Soul projects, clears away the sonic rubble and frames Björk’s voice in a variety of flattering settings: the clubland churn of “Violently Happy,” the winsome strings- and-things of the technicolor romance “Venus as a Boy,” the space-bliss ambiance of “Come to Me” and the sweet-and-sour horns of “The Anchor Song.” But on the lesser tracks, Björk’s vocal shortcomings are left painfully exposed. Her voice frayed and off-key, she mangles the standard “Like Someone in Love”; on “One Day,” she goos and coos like a child — a pixiefied persona she has been mining with diminishing results since the days of the Sugarcubes’ breakthrough “Birthday” single in 1987.
Hooper and Björk are reunited on a portion of Post, but this time the singer spreads the work among various producers of the moment, including Tricky, 808 State’s Graham Massey and Mo Wax’s Howie Bernstein. The result is a stunningly assured and diverse album, a tour of club-savvy beats, techno atmospherics and avant-garde filigrees, with Björk turning in her most assured batch of vocal performances ever. As usual, she lets her eccentricities gush, this time with a knowing wink on “Hyper-ballad”: “Every morning I walk towards the edge / And throw little things off / Like car-parts, bottles and cutlery / Or whatever I find lying around.” The album runs a stylistic gamut from the ominous bass-heavy throb of “Army of Me” to the brassy cover of “It’s Oh So Quiet,” a big-band oldie recorded by actress/singer Betty Hutton. Björk nails every nuance with previously unheard subtlety: pensive compassion on “You’ve Been Flirting Again,” coy sensuality on “Possibly Maybe,” hushed wonderment on “Cover Me.” She’s still the Girl Who Fell to Earth, but this time she brought along plenty of cool songs.
On Gling-Glò, a jovial digression recorded while she was still a ‘Cube, Björk — backed by a jazz trio making nice and snappy on piano, string bass and drums — gives her all to a collection of Icelandic pop classics that contains two American ringers, Leiber/Stoller’s “Ruby Baby” and Oscar Hammerstein II/Jerome Kern’s “I Can’t Help Loving That Man,” providing oases of English. The novelty of another nation’s unknown musical heritage aside, the album’s charm is in Björk’s robust singing — a typical panoply of tricks, delicacies and unpredictable explosions. It comes as no surprise that Björk is a truly amazing vocal stylist, but this ices the cake with wonderfully pure sweetness.