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Disc of the Week: Bjork bursts the convention of an 'album'

This album is part of an unfolding constellation of linked projects, including a suite of 10 interactive audio-visual apps for the iPad, each based on a song from the disc. These hand-held playgrounds will include (we are told) games, animations, essays and utilities for making your own music and texts from kits of materials used in the songs. Only two of the apps have appeared so far – the rest will be released gradually over the coming weeks. But even with much of her new work still unseen and unheard, Bjork has burst the frame that held the concept of the "album" together through all the upheavals of recent years. In their app forms, the "finished" tracks will become starting points for collaborations with the user.

Biophilia, the album, reflects its new-media extensions through an overall theme: the links between cells in the body, movements of the planets, and components of whatever new gadget we've found to complicate our culture (by the way, if you don't have an iPad, there are video samples of what the apps look like ). Bjork looks at these parallel systems from a magical, mythic perspective. She's "craving miracles" in Thunderbolt, a song created with a crackling bass line generated by a huge sparking Tesla coil. She finds them in Dark Matter, a song about the universe's invisible plenitudes, in which murky keyboards and stark, two-part vocal harmonies sound almost like a mediaeval take on contemporary classical music.

There are a lot of custom-built sonorities on this disc, from the shallow harp sounds of Moon, to the Balinese simulations of the "gameleste" (a bulked-up variation on the celeste) in Crystalline and Virus. The counterweight to these bright novelties is the ageless sound of the voice: Bjork's wondering girl-woman sound, and the women's chorus that often feels like the embodiment of an archaic village sisterhood.

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Bjork's interest in new science and cosmology is matched by her hunger for ancestral wisdom. Cosmonogy, the album's strongest track, describes a different creation myth in each verse. In the first, the universe is made from the singing of a pair of silver foxes. In the second, it comes from a cold black egg, which hatches out a god who makes the stars and planets from the shell.

Bjork's incantatory style of delivery gives almost every tune a feeling of ritual discovery, as if some cosmic requirement were being satisfied by these words and this singing. The dark brasses in Cosmology and the church organ in Thunderbolt aren't just instrumental colours: They trigger strong associations with ritual observances.

Like so many songwriters before her, Bjork isn't above finding mirrors for the heart's adventures in the movements of moon and stars. She's a master at finding exotic camouflage for conventional or well-tried manoeuvres. Few of these songs diverge from standard pop structures. Most move along at Bjork's default speed – a walking andante – and almost all present the same kind of meandering modal tunesmithing she has been practising for years.

For these reasons, I find Biophilia more convincing in pieces than as a whole. This may be the perfect album to be exploded into individual audio-visual worlds you can get lost in. Context is a big thing in any art, for making the strange seem approachable and the old seem new. Nobody in pop music understands that better than Bjork.


  • Bjork
  • One Little Indian/Nonesuch



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Only in Dreams

  • Dum Dum Girls
  • Sub Pop
  • ***1/2

Rock music, the phoenix of our time, rises again with this casually brilliant disc by the Dum Dum Girls. The band's doomy surf sound and resonant swagger is still indebted to a vanished generation of rock 'n' rollers (thanks in part to time-warping producers Richard Gottehrer and Sune Rose Wagner of the Raveonettes), but the whole adventure has got deeper and more intense since the band's debut last year. Dee Dee (Kristen Gundred) sings with a tough, lush tone and a dying fall to her phrases that recall another American rock diva, but she's no pretender: Gundred's well-made songs grab the ear and touch the heart. The strutting brush-off of Just a Creep, the grand sensuality of Bedroom Eyes, and the driving regret of Wasted Away (one of several songs written after the death of Gundred's mother) make this a disc you need to hear. – Robert Everett-Green

The Dum Dum Girls play the Electric Owl in Vancouver Saturday night, Lee's Palace in Toronto on Oct. 16 and Montreal's Il Motore on Oct. 17.


Schubert: String Quartet in G Major, D. 887; Beethoven: String Quartet in F Major, Op. 135

  • New Orford String Quartet: Andrew Wan and Jonathan Crow, violins; Eric Nowlin viola; Brian Manker, cello
  • Bridge Records
  • ***1/2

The New Orford String Quartet plays Beethoven's last string quartet almost as if it were Schubert: lyrically, expansively, and without dramatic extremes. The comic doesn't conjure the playground, the tragic (the diminished chords in the last movement, for instance) doesn't scream, and the slow movement has both serenity and a spacious, wistful grandeur. Schubert's Quartet in G Major makes a provocative companion piece – the two composers seem to be talking to one another across the void. Although the Orford suggests that Schubert had rather less to say in this conversation, they nicely capture that quality in Schubert that makes his music sound as if it were no longer quite of this world – a quality Beethoven laboured so to achieve, and one that Schubert evoked at will. – Elissa Poole

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  • Zola Jesus
  • Sacred Bones
  • ***

More haunting electro transmissions from the gothic ice siren Nika Roza Danilova, a tiny Russian-American with the kind of wide-screen voice that Moby might like to hire. Following up on last year's accomplished Stridulum II, Danilova, I think, is trying with Conatus to make a more danceable record. She doesn't quite get there, but there are moments. Vessel uses an industrial clang and a camera's click to move the verse towards a grander chorus. Hikikomori is elegant goth-soul: "Sicker in the daylight, sicker on the inside." And Ixode has an insistent, sullen sort of club-floor throb to it, with lyrics sung darkly in an undiscovered language – Stevie Nicks, from the warped beyond. This is the kind of album you'd like to time-travel with back to the eighties, blowing some minds for sure. – Brad Wheeler


Open Flames

  • Bruce Peninsula
  • Hand Drawn Dracula
  • ***

You don't just listen to a Bruce Peninsula album, you experience it – as if a 10-person musical mob were to lift you onto their collective shoulders, rumble through a mountain forest and throw you from a cliff, into a pool of water below. On its rousing second album, Ontario's mother-earth-choir veers to a folkier and more focused sound than the wilder "prog-gospel" of its debut. We hear a little less of Neil Haverty's husky throat; a little more of Misha Bower's stoic croon. The energy is often ecstatic, thanks to the Huns-at-the-door drumming. This is roof-top shouting at its life-affirming finest. – Brad Wheeler

Bruce Peninsula, currently touring Eastern Canada, plays Toronto's Lee's Palace on Oct. 27.

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About the Author

Robert Everett-Green is a feature writer at The Globe and Mail. He was born in Edmonton and grew up there and on a farm in eastern Alberta. He was a professional musician for several years before leaving that task to better hands. More

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