Providence's Alternative Source!

Björk, Stereolab, and the Butthole Surfers push the boundaries


Radiohead don't deserve the credit -- or, for that matter, the blame -- for adding the cut-and-paste æsthetic of digital studio wizardry to the recipe for a successful cutting-edge rock album. Sure, with the release last year of Kid A (Capitol), the first of a pair of Radiohead albums that incorporate both the sounds and the methodology of contemporary electronic music, the band were embraced as pioneers, the musical equivalent of the first baker to add chocolate chips to a batch of brown-sugar cookies. But beneath the slick exterior of mainstream pop and even the rough and grungy surface of alternative rock and its many offshoots, the digital revolution has been transforming the way music is made from the ground up for well over a decade. And Kid A was just the latest instance of an adventurous band going out of their way to expand the boundaries of what constitutes pop. U2 attempted something similar with their 1997 album Pop (Island), and back in 1989 the Dust Brothers helped push the Beastie Boys into the binary-coded future with Paul's Boutique (Capitol).

More than anything, though, Kid A and its follow-up, this year's Amnesiac (Capitol), reflect the challenges facing "alternative" artists and their audiences in the post-alternative world. In the '90s it may have felt as if it had all been done before, as if each micro-trend that appeared on the cultural radar were a knowing echo of something from the past as everything from '50s swing to '60s psychedelia to '70s punk and disco to '80s new wave resurfaced in some guise. Now, though, we've reached the point where it feels not only as if it had all been done but as if it had all been redone at least once before. Which has only made it harder for those artists who've thrived on opposition, originality, and/or rebellion of some kind, be it social, political, or æsthetic: they're left with precious little room to maneuver without bumping up against the next big thing or treading on well-traveled ground. It's those circumstances -- not, as some have joked, a loathing for stardom -- that have driven Radiohead to the outer edges of the pop soundscape, a place with few recognizable verse/chorus/verse arrangements, little in the way of rousing guitar riffs, and, for significant stretches, the striking absence of their most potent asset, singer Thom Yorke's voice.

Radiohead aren't alone in the struggle to keep their fans happy and themselves challenged. Former Sugarcubes singer Björk Gudmundsdóttir knows better than to let the spotlight stray too far from the elastic, gymnastic, infectiously playful voice that has always been her primary asset, but she's also clearly not willing to settle for bland and easy musical backing or for anything traditional. Early on in her solo career she discovered that the freedom and spaciousness afforded by electronic musical backdrops (as opposed to the backing of a band) were ideal for an hyperactive voice like hers -- that musical subtlety can compensate for a lack thereof in the vocal department. So she's been making avant-pop with the help of DJ types like Nellee Hooper, Tricky, Graham Massey (808 Sate), and Howie Bernstein (Mo Wax) for almost a decade (her Elektra debut, Debut, came out in '93).


Like Radiohead, Björk too seems to have found herself pushed farther and farther toward the avant fringe of pop as more and more mainstream artists have begun to raid DJ culture for techno-based sounds. She's supplemented her musical endeavors with acting -- she played a single mother accused of murder in Lars von Trier's 2000 film Dancer in the Dark. And that role gave her an opportunity to indulge in the last refuge of the artistically minded commercial artist: the soundtrack. The result was the introspective SelmaSongs (Elektra), a collection of compositions that served as a bridge to more seriously toned songwriting for the once playful pixie.

Björk's still got plenty of pixyish playfulness in her on the new Vespertine (Elektra). But the disc feels more somber, more, well, adult than any of her previous solo outings did. (Indeed, on her upcoming tour, she'll be accompanied by an orchestra and playing venues like Boston's Wang Theatre -- you don't get much more "adult" than that in the pop world.) "I'm so close to tears/And so close to simply calling you up/And simply suggesting that we go to the hidden place," she pleads quietly on the opening track, "Hidden Place" -- and in a sense, Vespertine is a journey into that private place, or at least the soundtrack to the journey.

That sense is only heightened by the absence of bold musical backdrops. Mostly we just get Björk's voice whining, crying, purring, cooing, straining, scatting, and plucking melodies out of thin air. What subtle backing there is provided by computer-generated loops of skittering rhythms, formless bass tones, and gently swelling string arrangements -- her main collaborators this time around are the San Francisco avant-garde programming duo Matmos, and "Pagan Poetry" features harp accompaniment by another avant-gardist, Zeena Parkins. When something resembling a normal dance rhythm surfaces on the 10th track, the still subdued "Heirloom," it sounds almost rousing in contrast to the light tapping and gurgling that's come before. And when Björk leaves a little melodic flesh on the skeletal structure of "Unison," the disc's final cut, the effect is like walking out into the brightness of a partially overcast day after sitting for two hours in a darkened movie theater. As with Radiohead's last two albums, you may be left wondering whether it was worth the effort: for all its intimate charms, Vespertine is more impressive than enjoyable, and a lot less accessible than it had to be.

Björk's labelmates Stereolab have been struggling to find a balance between art and commerce since their inception, in the early '90s. Formed around the nucleus of guitarist Tim Gane and the French-born singer Laetitia Sadier and supported by a revolving cast of other players that of late has usually included High Llamas guitarist/arranger Sean O'Hagan, the group have unabashedly plundered both classic krautrock (especially the music of Neu! and Can) and Marxist theory. Fortunately, their equal fondness for vintage analog keyboard drones, chugging Velvetsy guitars, and driving 4/4 backbeats has led to some propulsive rock moments, especially when you factor in Sadier's cooing vocals and tongue-in-cheek touches of '60s lounge exotica. Yet the band have often seemed too (avant-)guarded to explore fully the pop side of their musical psyche. They've always been stuck somewhere between the simple pleasures of Space Age Bachelor Pad Music and the abstract experiments of Transient Random-Noise Bursts with Announcements.

Butthole Surfers

Not much has changed on the new Sound-Dust (Elektra). If anything, they seem more stalled than ever, perhaps because this is the third or fourth album in succession on which they've flirted with pop-music making without committing themselves to writing one big hit song. Yes, there's an abundance of the kind of easygoing continental pop construction that evokes the romance of reading Proust or Marx while sipping French roast at some café Napoleon once frequented on the Left Bank, and they make good use of O'Hagan's talents for placing Bacharachian horn arrangements right where you expect them. So maybe this is Stereolab's big pop move. The band certainly have curtailed their need to include random bursts of experimental noise (as if it were necessary to remind us that they're not your average pop band). And the songs are more about regular stuff, like going on a date to a movie, than about socio-political theories. Radiohead and Björk, take note: there's something impressive about hearing an avant-garde band make enjoyable music, even if it ends up being more accessible than they'd like it to be.

Next to maybe Black Flag, the Butthole Surfers are the last refugees from the '80s American hardcore underground that you'd expect to find scoring a modern rock hit with a little electro-pop ditty. But that's exactly what happened to the Surfers in '96 with "Pepper" from Electriclarryland (Capitol). Then four years passed during which Capitol apparently rejected a disc titled After the Astronaut -- even though it had already sent out cassette advances -- and the band rejected both their management and Capitol.

Well, the Surfers are finally back, with a new album, Weird Revolution, on a new label, Hollywood/Surfdog. And sure enough, they've immersed themselves in the loopy world of digital programming. The first single, "The Shame of Life" (written by Surfer singer Gibby Haynes and Kid Rock), is a dark-hued rocker with spoken-word verses, churning guitars, a driving beat, and only the occasional techno-squiggle. The title track, however, is a Haynes rant put to a beat and fitted out with what sounds like turntable scratching and sample tweaking. Elsewhere, Haynes recalls what seems to be a bad acid trip in "Suit like That" against a backdrop of hip-hopped upbeats, growling guitar, and more electronic interference. In a lot of ways, Weird Revolution is the flip side of the Björk/Radiohead coin -- as a rock band, the Butthole Surfers were an avant-garde mess, but as a techno-pop outfit, they make remarkably accessible music. If nothing else, it's proof that there's nothing inherently obscure about digital technology: it's all in how you choose to use it.

Issue Date: September 7 - 13, 2001