Björk: My Favorite Martian

To the millions who get their culture fix from Entertainment Tonight , Björk is that freakish nymph who wore a swan at last year’s Oscars. For a brief spell, she descended upon Hollywood, did the red-carpet rounds and performed a song from her celebrated big-screen debut, flirting with the big time just long enough for gossip columnists to make her the night’s consummate fashion “don’t.”

Of course, the Icelandic individualist also revealed herself as an artist with considerably more talent than many in the room that night. It’s that newly boundary-crossing talent-displayed in both her dramatically sweeping music and her painfully tender acting in Dancer in the Dark- that makes Vespertine (Elektra) her most accomplished album to date. As a singer, Björk trades on the weightless swoons and deeply rooted growls that can make a voice communicate as much as a full-body gesture. Entire narratives are bound in her vocal delivery, and there’s a novel’s worth of unarticulated emotion in the polar wind that blows through Vespertine .

True to her experimental past, Björk saves much of her storytelling for the music. Programmed with help from techno-semiologists Matmos, Herbert and Mendoza, the album’s backing tracks crackle like signals on a short-wave radio, while strings swell to crescendo and avant-harpist Zeena Parkins picks melodies suited for an empty nave. The first single, “Hidden Place,” throbs beneath a synth riff that corrodes like time-lapse footage of rusting steel before it reaches stirring heights. Despite its typically dense orchestration, Vespertine ‘s hymnal feel is quieter and more reserved than anything Björk’s done. Past forays into jarring breakbeats and cartoonish exuberance have been replaced by glitchy ambiance and more measured release. Likewise, her singing swaps bombast for subtly arresting shadings. On “Cocoon,” she pushes a whispered coo to its strained limits, her hushed scream conveying love’s mix of ecstasy and anguish. Her vocal poetics also make an uncommonly animating match for verse borrowed from E.E. Cummings (“Sun in My Mouth”) and Harmony Korine (“Harm of Will”).

Like the last two Radiohead albums, Vespertine charts an unmapped zone between the alien world that surrounds us and the one that spins within. As the sound of data drizzle falls all around her, Björk knows when to raise an umbrella and when to just let wetness teach her what it is to be dry.

– Andy Battaglia

Elvis Costello: Dealing With Reissues

As with the other Elvis, fans of Elvis Costello split roughly into two camps: those who think he’s alive and well, and those who believe he died decades ago (musically, at least).

While firmly in the former camp, I can’t argue with anyone in the latter, who feel betrayed by Mr. Costello’s abandonment of primal punk tunes for subtler, more complex songwriting with the likes of Burt Bacharach and the Brodsky Quartet.

Among Mr. Costello’s most loyal fans are the staff of Rhino Records. When the rights to his back catalog recently reverted to him for a second time (in 1993, he reissued almost all his Columbia recordings on Rykodisc), he turned to the archivist label to reissue his entire oeuvre with bonus discs of outtakes and rarities, and trenchant liner notes from the man himself. They’re arriving in batches, and the first set includes his best-sellers, 1977’s debut My Aim Is True and 1989’s Spike , and one of his worst-sellers, 1996’s neglected All This Useless Beauty . (In the meantime, the rest are temporarily out of print.)

Greil Marcus recently wrote that his initial reaction to My Aim Is True was that it was a “hoax” perpetrated by producer Nick Lowe and singer Graham Parker, because Mr. Marcus couldn’t “believe that anybody as geeky as the character on the jacket would have the nerve to appear in public.” But at the time, that geek was a bracing hero, an animalistic yet intellectual antidote to the era’s overblown art rock and California stylings.

There’s not much that hasn’t already been said about this landmark album, a tossed-off studio-band masterpiece. Of the newly revamped titles, it has the least new material-just four more tracks than the nine on the Rykodisc reissue (including the essential live version of Mr. Bacharach’s “I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself”), so even diehards may balk at purchasing the title for a third time. But the other two are wise choices to highlight, among the strongest records of his middle and later career. Both are worth a second (or first) listen, and the supplementary material makes even stronger cases for them.

Spike was overproduced and dense, and lovely songs like “Veronica” got somewhat lost in the mix. As Mr. Costello cheerfully admits in the liner notes, the demos “may actually be more to some people’s taste than the finished album.” And long-lost B-sides like his cover of Nick Lowe’s poppy “The Ugly Things” and Linda Ronstadt’s “You’re No Good” with Marc Ribot on guitar are alone worth the price of admission.

All This Useless Beauty is a compendium of songs Mr. Costello wrote that were intended either for others (like Johnny Cash and Roger McGuinn) or with others (like Paul McCartney and Aimee Mann); as he notes, unlike his early efforts, “None of these lyrics contained any anger toward the characters, only disappointment that they had settled for so little. I could just as easily have been talking to myself. I was also drinking very large quantities of alcohol.”

Despite this, he produced a brilliant, somber, grown-up post-punk album that holds up with his best work. The bonus tracks include fascinating strays that show his incredible range: a song recorded with Brian Eno, demos written with Mr. McCartney and Ms. Mann, a song with the ancient a cappella gospel group the Fairfield Four, and another remixed by trip-hopper Tricky.

That list says it all. Few artists of the last 25 years have had so many fruitful associations, influences and accomplishments. If Elvis Costello is a hoax, I’m happy to be his patsy.

– David Handelman

Varnaline: Alt. Country Livin’

That I’m reviewing Varnaline’s latest album, Songs in a Northern Key (E-Squared Artemis), strikes me as a little odd. For back in the mid-90’s, when Varnaline were just getting started, you couldn’t have paid me enough to cover them. Why? First, I found their publicist at the time, shall we say, overly persistent. She called my office with alarming frequency to tell me that I had to do something on this band or I’d “miss the boat.”

I’ll admit that all that hustling got me to listen to Varnaline’s ’96 debut, Man of Sin . But that brought up the second, far more important problem: The music was sketchy, undistinguished folk-rock. I gave up.

Then, in early ’99, I heard the group’s third album, Sweet Life , and was pleasantly surprised by its rich, melancholy textures. Steve Earle must have liked them, too, for he signed Varnaline to his E-Squared label last year. It’s a perfect fit, since much of Songs in a Northern Key suggests a grimmer version of Mr. Earle’s recent album, Transcendental Blues . Singer-songwriter Anders Parker, the band’s sole full-time member, crafts a brand of that leans way more on the alt, complete with chiming 12-string guitars, elegiac pump organ and gut-punch drums that sound like they were recorded in an elevator shaft. One track, “Let It All Come Down,” could almost pass for grunge.

Yet even at this music’s most raucous, its temperature remains low. As the album’s title intimates, these songs have winter in their bones. The quietly aching “Blackbird Fields” and “Difference” inhabit a realm where the days are short and entropy rules; whatever hasn’t already stopped functioning is about to. The closest Mr. Parker gets to humor is on “Broken Song,” where he sings over a wistful trombone line: “I am a young man / Soon I’ll be dead / If you were a rich girl / Well, maybe I’d live.”

Mr. Parker’s mopiness would be hard to take if it wasn’t for the charm of his tender, uncertain baritone, as well as his skill at creating alluring moods. Just as the air seems clearest and freshest on a bitter January day, so the power of Mr. Parker’s melodies is most evident when presented in a crisp atmosphere. Songs in a Northern Key makes a gorgeous case in point. I hereby apologize, both to Mr. Parker and to his former publicist, for my past errors, and advise all those curious about Varnaline not to miss the boat.

– Mac Randall

Chocolate Genius: Dark and Lovely

It takes balls to perform under the alias Chocolate Genius. What’s more, Mr. Genius (a.k.a. Marc Anthony Thompson) titled his last album Black Music , as though he could define the sound of an entire race. Now he’s back with godmusic (V2).

Mr. Thompson’s cocky yet self-deprecating stage presence helps him pull off the genius part (stellar songcraft doesn’t hurt, either). And 1998’s Black Music proved a haunting, if depressing, collage of evocatively dark (read: black) lyrics-botched relationships, alcoholism, his mother’s battle with Alzheimer’s-with mournful grooves and glimmers of redemption. It also introduced a different kind of black performer: Rather than brown-sugar seduction, righteous anger or high-life glitz, the Brooklynite melds soul, folk-rock, blues, jazz and funk. And the result is as much Tom Waits as it is D’Angelo, Paul Westerberg as it is P. Diddy.

But godmusic ? C’mon. While the album finds Mr. Thompson in similar fine, wide-ranging form with slightly more uplifting material, it’s hardly the sound of heavenly seraphim (not even funky Fort Greene seraphim). Mr. Thompson clearly worships the gods of rhythm and melody, but thankfully godmusic has no stake in Christian rock. In fact, organized religion gets a kiss-off in “The Eyes of the Lord”: “There ain’t no love / There’s no joy / … No love in the name of the Lord.”

Instead, godmusic ‘s finest moments-when the chords of the work-song-like verse of “Bossman Piss (in My Lemonade)” resolve into the major-key, tabla-driven chorus; when a burst of guitar fuzz makes the tragedy tangible in the elegiac “Planet Rock”-are religious in their epiphanic power.

Mr. Thompson’s songs are tableaux-no surprise considering his Obie-winning theatrical background in sound design. He layers his weathered voice over a wash of artfully placed instruments, courtesy of local veterans like guitarist Marc Ribot and bassist Chris Wood, and the spare production respects their work. Frequent collaborator Oren Bloedow contributes a lovely horn chart to the Brian Wilson–esque falsetto “Infidel Blues.”

But even the most divine prodigies can stray. “Pocket Mouse,” a polemic about the hollowness of the American dream (“Spacious skies and power tools / Guns, crack, high school”) is pedestrian, as Mr. Thompson himself admits in the liner notes. And the silly hidden track is a throwaway, which is especially unfortunate, since traveling through godmusic ‘s darkness and reaching the gospel-tinged rave-up of the title track leaves the listener on the threshold of transcendence.

– Ann Abel

Joy Division: More Unknown Pleasures

It sounds facile to say now, but in London during the late 70’s-in the streets and on the airwaves, in the clubs and the record stores-it really felt as if punk had pushed the reset button. It was Year Zero of the new world order, and artistically there was a sense of infinite potential. Formed on a post–Sex Pistols concert high, Joy Division released their first single, a Wire-like asphyxiated punk thrash, in June 1978. Singer Ian Curtis persuaded the Factory label’s founder to include it on the sampler that first brought them national media attention. In January of 1979, they recorded their first studio appearance for John Peel’s hugely influential Sessions radio show, and Unknown Pleasures , their first album, came out in May of that year to widespread acclaim. Three wrenchingly beautiful singles-“Transmission,” “Dead Souls” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart”-followed.

As the latter climbed the charts, Curtis, all of 24 years old, hanged himself on the eve of their first U.S. tour. In the days leading up to his death, he’d watched Werner Herzog’s Stroszek (about a naïve musician who goes to the U.S. and ends up committing suicide) and had been listening to Iggy Pop’s The Idiot over and over. There had been overdoses and cut wrists, a messy divorce, too much alcohol and worsening epileptic seizures, and what he’d been thinking was pretty clear in his lyrics. But his death still seemed to have come out of the blue. Closer , the band’s second and final album, was released a couple of months later, and then, as with Nirvana, Biggie and Tupac, there were the tides of supplementary albums.

The four-disc set Heart and Soul: A Retrospective (Rhino) isn’t blindly completist, but it represents Joy Division at their best. The first two discs are extended releases of Unknown Pleasures and Closer; the third a round-up of singles, alternates and rarities; and the fourth live recordings in chronological sequence. There are sessionographies and bibliographies, a typically lurching rant from Paul Morley, the strident semiotic text from the Sordide Sentimentale “Dead Souls” package and an essay from John Savage (who manages to repress the messy hyperbole typical of music writers covering Joy Division). Best of all, the glossy booklet includes Curtis’ complete lyrics.

Musically a post-punk grafting of Northern Soul spirit onto a Velvet Underground heart, Joy Division’s preoccupation was with texture and atmosphere. There was a democratization of instrumental roles: The melodies (such as they were) came through in the midrange, carried on Peter Hook’s tight bass, filled out by Bernard Sumner with slurred chords and little echoey cascades of flanged guitar. The band really came into their own with the arrival of Martin Hannett, an obsessive studio fascist who was rumored to spend 12 hours getting the exact drum sound he wanted. Mr. Hannett’s effect on Joy Division is highlighted in this compilation: The band retained its musical identity, but Mr. Hannett brought a dark sophistication, suffocating Stephen Morris’ snare drum under gated reverb, bringing Mr. Hook forward and pulling Mr. Sumner back.

If the music was democratic, the singer was dictatorial. In concert, Curtis was the focus of the band-indeed, Mr. Hook and Mr. Sumner often played with their backs to the audience, hunched over in the gloom of Curtis’ penumbra. He’d start off stiff, his body virtually twitching with nervous energy, and then gradually his arms would start to move, then flail, his movements becoming wilder until he seemed to be tearing open. His singing voice was more earnest than tuneful, his delivery more poetic than musical, his words urgent, despairing.

At their best, Joy Division had an intensity that I’ve rarely encountered since. Their influence has been widespread, from Nirvana to the Smashing Pumpkins, and will filter down second- and third-hand to younger groups for years to come. Heart and Soul will probably be bought mostly by those who were there at the time, but there’s far more here than hollow nostalgia. Even 20 years later, after listening to these records, the day seems to turn a little wan, the sun dims a little.

– Jonathan Hayes Björk: My Favorite Martian