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CD REVIEW

Bjork: Greatest Hits + Family Tree

Reinspiring Awe and Devotion

By Fred Choi

staff writer

Greatest Hits, Family Tree

Bjork

Elektra

November 5, 2002

Bjork, Iceland’s most popular export, is a master of seamlessly combining “serious” art with a catchy pop sensibility. Or perhaps she combines catchy pop music with a more “serious” sensibility. Either way, Bjork continues to successfully straddle the all too often disjunct worlds of pop and high art, and to please fans and critics alike in her latest project, a collection of greatest hits. Never one to do the expected, Bjork's greatest hits take the form of two releases: a single disc (with the characteristically simple appellation Greatest Hits), and a 6 CD boxed set (comprised of 1 LP and 5 3-inch EPs) which can only be described as “lavish,” entitled Family Tree.

Accompanying the two releases is an attractive and elaborate section on http://bjork.com, with a page devoted to each song on the Greatest Hits CD, including quotes and interviews with Bjork and others about the songs, stills from the videos, a discography of the EPs released for the song, and miscellaneous extras, such as concept drawings for the memorable “All Is Full of Love” music video and the story from the “Bachelorette” video.

“Greatest Hits,” obviously the more marketable of the two releases, is geared towards newcomers, although the tracklisting was based on a vote by fans at bjork.com. Culled from the songs officially released as “singles,” the 15 tracks will immediately captivate newbies, although the songs will hold few surprises for fans, as most of the tracks have long received the attention they are due. Included are songs from Bjork’s three first releases, among them “Hyperballad,” “Joga,” “Isobel,” “Bachelorette,” and “Big Time Sensuality,” (the latter presented here in the video remix version, as is the gorgeous “All Is Full of Love,”) in addition to “Pagan Poetry” and “Hidden Place” from Vespertine, Bjork's most recent release. It is slightly surprising that the purposefully detached “Army of Me,” the dreamy “Possibly Maybe,” and the compelling but lesser-known “Play Dead” edged out such upbeat and poppy tunes as “Violently Happy,” “I Miss You,” and the almost saccharine international hit “It’s Oh So Quiet.” Obviously, Bjork’s fans fully appreciate both the poppy and the artsy sides of their idol.

Greatest Hits as a whole affords two distinct pleasures. First, a fantastic new track, “It’s In Our Hands,” which Bjork has performed at the close of her shows during the last tour and which will soon make its appearance as a set of singles, but is released here for the first time. (Some fans may bristle at the fact that the song is only available on Greatest Hits and not on Family Tree, but the possible reasons have been left to speculation.)

Greatest Hits also allows long-time fans to re-examine a unique artist’s output over a span of almost 10 years, and the awe that it reinspires is tremendous. In addition to possessing one of the most distinctive and unforgettable voices of the century, she does what few other artists do: combine such truly poetic lyrics with such highly crafted music, whose range includes playful jingles as in “Venus As A Boy,” lush ballads like “Joga,” almost avant-garde sounds, as in “Pagan Poetry,” and many tracks, like “Hunter” and “Isobel,” which skip blithely away from any obvious categories.

Family Tree is geared towards devoted fans, although in reality less than half of the music will be really new to the thoroughly rabid Bjork disciple. The familiar items include a full-length Greatest Hits CD compiled by Bjork herself and a booklet featuring 16 lyrics that Bjork found representative of her uvre. The CD includes seven of the same songs featured on the fan-based release, and in general the disc leans towards slower, more atmospheric songs such as “You’ve Been Flirting Again” and “I’ve Seen It All” from Bjork’s Cannes Award-winning role in Dancer in the Dark.

Among the semi-familiar tracks are some readily available b-sides, including “Sidasta Eg,” a serene Debut b-side; a few tracks from Bjork’s years with the Sugarcubes, the wonderfully manic Icelandic pop group Bjork sang in before going solo; and alternate versions of songs, including two EPs worth of the 1995 collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet (the pair had previously presented a colorful arrangement of “Hyperballad” on the remix CD Telegram and they gave two concerts in December 1999). The latter is the saving grace of the set for die-hard fans, as the tracks have not previously been available, and, with the exception of a glaringly trite quote from Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue,” the arrangements are generally proficient; the Brodsky Quartet successfully retains the essence of the songs while providing a slightly different viewpoint.

Outside of the alternate versions of the songs, an obscure track from Bjork’s much lesser-known second band Kukl, and some elaborate packaging, truly die-hard fans will already be familiar with the rest of the set. This includes some obscure b-sides, all worth owning, including the joyfully catchy “I Go Humble.” The packaging itself might justify the set for some, however; the elaborately designed set comes in a plastic pink box in a white paper sleeve and the CD sleeves and booklets include 28 pictures of nicely complementary works by fellow Icelandic native, Gabriela Fridriksdottir, a sculptor.

Some may wonder why no songs from Bjork’s other projects, including Tappi Tikarass (Bjork’s first band) or any of the many successfully remixes which have been so central to Bjork’s output, appear in the set. Although the set generally takes itself a little too seriously, for the most part avoiding the spontaneous fun and humour of Bjork’s stage presence, the care taken in its design and its contents will be sure to reinspire devotion in fans, although newcomers should pick up the single disc first.