Not since the Jesus and Mary Chain made their initial assault did a band come out of nowhere to generate as much excitement and acclaim as the Sugarcubes. The shock of the new that attended the first album launched the extraordinary Icelandic quintet into the international arena with acceleration to spare. Behind Björk Gudmundsdóttir’s unmistakable vocals, the band busted stylistic moves the likes of which had never been heard; alien precepts (singer Einar Örn’s trumpet among them), batty lyrics and abundant creative energy pushed it past the ordinary limits of ordinary Anglo-American rock. Drumming (by Siggi Baldursson) and guitar work point to such influences as Joy Division and Siouxsie and the Banshees and, in more delicate moments (such as “Birthday,” their debut single), bits of the Cocteau Twins. They also make very interesting use of an electronically mutated trumpet and sound effects. But the Sugarcubes’ main instrument is Björk’s amazing voice. The elfin character’s range of pitch is only surpassed by her range of emotions: one moment she’s a little girl soprano, the very next she’s growling like a crazed animal about to go for the kill. Einar’s contributions in awkwardly accented English are sorely outmatched; even when he takes the spotlight, her background vocals steal the show.
What she sings is noteworthy as well: Freud would have a field day with the childhood/sexual metaphors of the lyrics, most of which are more interesting than those from bands whose first language is English. Life’s Too Good is no letdown from the initial 45s (both are on the LP), with eleven cuts that retain a signature sound but avoid redundancy. Iceland is a country whose little-known rock scene has produced a number of rather interesting, if not earth-shattering bands. This one is the real thing. (“Birthday” and “Cold Sweat” were also issued as CD singles with numerous B-sides. The CD of the album adds six extra tracks — some sung in Icelandic — including an incredible alternate version of “Deus.”)
Matching up to the debut proved a difficult challenge for the Sugarcubes. Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week! has a more mainstream sound, fewer memorable songs, blander lyrics and entirely too much of Örn’s overly affected, annoying vocals. There are still special touches no other band could offer, and tracks like “Regina,” “Eat the Menu” and “Nail” stand out, but there’s nothing here that makes one sit up and take notice the way Life’s Too Good did (and does). For a more provocative experience, try the album’s alternative version, Illur Arfur! (“evil inheritance”), issued abroad under the band’s native name, Sykurmolarnir. The tracks are identical, but sung in Icelandic (although lyrics and titles are provided in English). The Here Today CD adds three cuts, one a dumb spaghetti western reworking of “Cold Sweat” entitled “Hot Meat.” Illur Arfur! is the album sung in Icelandic.
The Sugarcubes continue heading the wrong way on Stick Around for Joy, bringing producer Paul Fox in to further polish the sound into a pleasing but unexceptional mix of guitar, keyboards and the intricate, hard-hitting rhythms that always gave the band its dance credibility. Nonetheless, Björk’s singing is shapely, passionate and willfully bizarre; she carries the album pretty much on her own. (Not surprisingly, she was on the verge of launching a solo career.) Örn’s accented color commentary in the lusterless “Gold,” the gripping “Hetero Scum” and the angry “Leash Called Love” is mundane and extraneous to his bandmate’s ecstatic invocations; she’s clearly better off on her own.
As Björk readied her solo debut, the Sugarcubes iced their career as a band with It’s-It, a radical remix retrospective of essential (and not-so-essential) songs from all three albums. More a companion collection than a proper walk down the Sugarcubes’ memory lane, It’s-It does a disservice to the debut’s “Birthday” in two completely different directions, and disassembles “Blue Eyed Pop” and the second record’s “Regina” to the point of total torpor. But Todd Terry does find a way to replate “Gold,” and Tony Humphries tones “Leash on Love” up with merry house accessories, so It’s-It is not a total loss.
Most Sugarcubes singles have been issued on CDs with non- LP and/or Icelandic-language tracks or alternate versions (it’s always nice to see non-English speaking bands who don’t ignore their own tongue.) For hardcore ‘Cubes collectors, several years’ worth of now-deleted singles are available in boxes, available as 7-inch and 12-inch vinyl as well as CD. The 12s and CDs are loaded with extra goodies including remixes, live takes and non-LP tracks (such as original Christmas songs).
Prehistory: In the early ’80s, Purrkur Pillnikk — a band from Reykjavik’s burgeoning scene — supported the Fall on the latter’s Icelandic tour (during which time most of Hex Enduction Hour was recorded), sporting a similarly anarchic, jagged sound. Einar Örn handled Pillnikk’s lead vocals; Bragi Olafsson played bass. When that band ended, Örn met up with Björk and formed Kukl (sometimes K.U.K.L.), joined on the second LP by drummer Sigtryggur Baldursson, formerly of Theyr.
The Eye is a dark, almost Teutonic excursion into rock chamber music; the sound is somewhat subdued, dominated by lots of woodwinds (played by Björk), bells and other pitched percussion, Einar’s trumpet and heavily treated guitar. Lyrics tend towards the morbid. Holidays in Europe lies between the experimentalism of its predecessor and the off-center pop the ‘Cubes would later become known for. (When Kukl broke up, Björk, Einar, Olafsson and Baldursson formed the Sugarcubes with guitarist Thor Eldon; Reptile keyboardist Margaret (Magga) Örnólfsdottir joined after Life’s Too Good.) All of the pre-Sugarcubes catalogue is recommended for fans of the band and/or experimental rock (who don’t mind doing some serious record hunting).