.journal 2001.10.08
New Björk, new Tori.

Now listening to: Björk, Vespertine; Tori Amos, Strange Little Girls
Now reading: Poppy Z. Brite, Drawing Blood; Sylvia Plath, The Collected Poems
Now playing: Final Fantasy VII (Playstation)

So in the aftermath of the fire at my house, my friends taking extended leaves of absence from accessibility, quitting my job and returning to college, and all the mess that has gone on in the world, Björk and Tori Amos both release new albums. Björk being an inspirational guide for me and the person I consider the greatest musician in the world, and Tori being the main influence in my own songwriting and right behind Björk on my scale of greatness. And I don't know if it's all I've been through this year or what, but I guess I'm just not all that enthusiastic about them.

I should preface this with a short story. This past May Björk did a preview concert for Vespertine at the Riverside Church in New York City. The church was incredibly small, and very few tickets were available. The day and location of the tickets being available was well-publicized in the Björk mailing list I've belonged to since 1994. Suffice it to say, the opportunity to see Björk in such an intimate setting, performing as-yet unreleased material (although preliminary mixes of the Vespertine songs were available on music-sharing services by this time) was a big one, and anticipation for the on-sale was thick.

Now, this was before I got my car, and even at that while I have a great deal of admiration for Björk, the logistics of going to New York City on only a few days' notice to see her just wouldn't work out for me, so I wasn't going to be in the running to get tickets. Good thing, too, as the on-sale was literally hours after the fire. So when I finally got my computer up here and running, I connected to the Internet as soon as possible to download all my e-mail.

And good grief, did the Björk mailing list explode while I was gone. People who logged in to the on-sale were told to input a password. This would be a great way of weeding out only the true fans for the concert, but nobody was told the password beforehand. Everyone had to rapidly guess at the password, which ended up being "church," which was guessable but still, why the hell put a password up there? By the time the password got published to the mailing list, all the tickets were sold, and tons of faithful fans were left out. Suffice it to say, there were a lot of unhappy people on the mailing list, and undue (and wholly undeserved) blame was laid on the members of the bjork.com/unity Website team on the list.

So right after I see my house go up in flames, right after I see my sister lose damn near everything she ever owned in her life, I get bombarded with all these "I didn't get tickets to the show, my life is over" messages. And I'm thinking to myself, "You know, I used to think myself a real Björk fanatic, but I'm not so sure anymore." I guess maybe that was the start of my enthusiasm being curbed for the new album.

As I said, mixes of all the Vespertine songs were available online long before the official release, but I never bothered listening to them. I've never been one for Napster or the clones it inspired, for security reasons if anything else (and also because at some point in my life I'm hoping to use the music industry to pillage large quantities of money from your hands), but above that I didn't want the album spoiled for me. So I never downloaded any of the songs, and just barely brought myself to watch the "Hidden Place" DVD a couple of times before the album came out.

Of course, Vespertine came out at the worst possible time for me. It was my second full-time day at college, and because of my father lying to me about reimbursing me for my textbooks I had all of $1.75 in my bank account that morning. So I had to borrow cash from him to get the CD (at least he did that, I suppose), but I was also trying to deal with the fact that my hard disk got toasted a few days before this thanks to faulty wiring in the hotel, so I had to try fixing that while listening to the album, instead of listening to it undistracted. (And it didn't help that I found out my hard disk had been physically damaged and was unsavable during all this.)

So when I listened to Vespertine that first time, I had to take into account that I wasn't in the greatest of moods, and I should reserve final judgment on the album until I'd had a chance to listen to it a few more times and let it sink in. But as the people on the Björk mailing list listened to the final tracks, they all began to praise Vespertine as the best Björk album yet, a true revolution in music. People who voiced contrary opinions were dismissed by some as being unable to feel the subtlety and intricacy of the album. And I stayed on the sidelines, listening to all sides of the debate, listening to Vespertine over and over again, formulating what I was going to say about the album. Here goes.

First of all, Vespertine is brilliant, there's no question about that. Five stars easily -- it's Björk for crying out loud, what do you expect me to say? There are some songs on here that I really like listening to over and over again. And for the style she's created on the album, I'd say it constitutes an evolution in music.

But not a revolution.

I don't pretend to be a professional music critic, but when I was messing around writing customer reviews on Amazon earlier in the year I think I got pretty good at it. (Limiting myself to 300 words per review was a real challenge.) I think I began to understand how each new work needs to be contrasted to the artist's earlier work, to the influences of that artist, and to the other music being created in the same time frame. And contrasting Vespertine to Björk's earlier work, I cannot help but insist that the revolution occurred with Homogenic.

I still remember listening to Homogenic that first time. What I lost in time in terms of playing Final Fantasy 7 when it came out because I was too transfixed with the funeral of Princess Diana, I gained because "Candle in the Wind '97" prompted a midnight madness sale at Media Play the night Homogenic came out, so I was able to have it home and in my stereo by 12h15. And what I listened to that night was, I believe, the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band of my generation. I truly believe Homogenic is, or could be if the people of my generation had any taste, that profound and life-changing an album for us. My eyes damn near bugged out when I was listening to "Bachelorette" realizing how absolutely brilliant it was.

Now, Björk couldn't just do another Homogenic with this new album, I realize. Musicians have to evolve, they have to change their style. But I don't like the style of Vespertine anywhere near as much as I continue to be enraptured with what Björk created on Homogenic. Homogenic just has this raw passion to it that explodes all over the place, and I guess because I've always identified Björk as a symbol of naked, shameless self-expression, that style speaks to my very soul. Vespertine has its own passion, but it's much more subdued, and I just don't get the same vibration off of it. It's still a great album, but in comparison to Homogenic it just seems to pale.

Throughout Björk's albums there have always been songs that I've felt were awkward and couldn't really relate to -- "I Miss You" and "Five Years" being among them. But there are four on Vespertine -- "It's Not Up to You," "Pagan Poetry," "Heirloom" and "Unison" -- that I just cannot get into. Making matters worse is that on the Björk mailing list, those former two are considered two of the strongest tracks on the album. I don't know if it's the disjointed lyrics, the dispassionate swings of the chord progressions or what, but I just can't connect with them like I usually can with Björk's songs.

The good outweights the bad on Vespertine to be sure. "Cocoon" has a groove to it that I dug from the first time I listened to it, "Frosti" is awesome (nothing like an instrumental to get me going), and "Harm of Will" has become my favourite track as it comes closest to approximating the elements that I loved so much from Homogenic. But none of Vespertine's peaks come close to matching Homogenic's. I listen to Vespertine much more often these days, just because it's the newest to me and I want to give it a chance, allow it to grow on me. But I don't think I ever will.

On the Björk mailing list the tracks "It's Not Up to You," "Undo" and "Pagan Poetry" -- tracks three through five -- have taken on an almost "Holy Trinity" quality to them, considered the strongest stretch of the album by the plurality of people on the list. But to me that's actually the weakest stretch of the album, and it's tracks three through five from Homogenic -- "Unravel," "Bachelorette" and "All Neon Like" -- that I consider the strongest stretch of Björk's recorded career. So odd. It's hard for me to rank Björk's albums, it's like ranking your children, or I'd imagine it's somewhat similar. But Homogenic is still tops for me, and I just find myself in radical disagreement with the view espoused by the majority of people on the Björk mailing list that Vespertine is a better album.

And just as I finish writing that, Vespertine stops playing and I replace it with Strange Little Girls. Can't ask for a better segueway than that.

Like Vespertine, I'd give Strange Little Girls five stars without hesitation. But when it comes to ranking Strange Little Girls with the rest of Tori's work, I find I just can't. Strange Little Girls being an album of covers and all, there just seems to be something wrong with trying to compare it to Tori's original songwriting. Much like I found myself unable to rank Bjork's Selmasongs with the rest of her work because the music was written in the context of Dancer in the Dark, and not necessarily to stand out on its own.

Also hindering me from being able to fully articulate my opinion of Strange Little Girls is the fact that I've heard so few of the original songs that Tori covers on it. I've already purchased Tom Waits' Rain Dogs to make the comparison for "Time," but to complete a collection of all the songs Tori covered would require me being an Eminem CD, and I don't think I could live with myself if I ever did that. But as a general rule, anything Tori covers she makes better; strangely enough, the only exception I've ever heard to this was when Tori covered a bit of Björk's "Hyperballad" at the end of her song "Butterfly" at one concert (I did grab that off of Napster, I admit). Yes, Tori does a better "Smells Like Teen Spirit" than Nirvana; deal with it.

Anyway, I'm not active in the Tori community online, but I don't think there can be much disputing the power of Tori's cover of "Time"; hell, it got David Letterman damn near tears, and if that doesn't say something then I don't know what does. Also given the state of the world these days, I've seen her cover of "I Don't Like Mondays" inspire tears in others. Her remake of "Happiness is a Warm Gun" is clever as only Tori can be. And "Strange Little Girl" and "Heart of Gold" prove that Tori can rock the house down when she wants to, for those morons who didn't believe that after listening to "Raspberry Swirl."

Weak points? Eh, "I'm Not in Love" and "Rattlesnakes" don't do much for me. But then again, it's hard to tell how much of the blame for that falls on Tori. The source material has to be take into consideration; Tori is terrific, but she's no miracle worker. Not even Tori could get something closely resembling music out of a Limp Bizkit or Kid Rock song. But again, there's much more good on the album than bad, and if you don't already own Strange Little Girls, well, you should.

But as with Björk, I guess I still do have my favourite Tori album, Under the Pink, that I have to say I like much more than Strange Little Girls. Under the Pink was my first Tori album, and like Homogenic, there's a certain rawness to it that draws me to it much more strongly than any of Tori's other work. That rawness has bled into Tori's later work, in songs like "Hey Jupiter" and "1,000 Oceans," and those are my favourite songs of the albums on which they respectively appear.

See, this is why I could never be a proper music critic; I think my personal tastes just get too in the way when I try to do stuff like this. But then again, I never said this was a proper review of the new Björk and Tori albums, did I? Just go ahead and buy one of everything I listed above, and for the love of Goddess use those links I supplied, because I need the money. Help a starving college student out, will you?

Take care and be well, one and all. And listen to some Björk and Tori Amos, it'll do you good. I'll see you all again soon.

- Sean