Any time you pop in a disc by Björk, one of the first things you ask is: Who's she working with now?
Thus far, each CD has been a case study in collaboration. She shook off the shackles of rock with the bright dance-pop of Nellee Hooper on 1993's Debut. Post ('95) featured trip-hop auteur Tricky upping the angst on a pair of tracks. Mark Bell and Howie B pushed more jagged beats to the forefront on 1997's Homogenic. In 2000, Björk worked with film director Lars von Trier on songs for the musical Dancer In The Dark, in which she also starred. Vespertine, released a year later, featured fragile beat programming from laptop-hop pioneers Matmos. Most recently, on 2004's Medúlla, Björk arranged choirs, singers and beatboxers to produce an entire album out of nothing but the human voice.
So, on to Volta. Who's she working with now?
You can hear one of the most hyped team-ups right off the bat, on "Earth Intruders." The song starts with the sound of boots marching; then hip-hop/R&B maestro Timbaland kicks in with a whopper of a beat, a tribal-Atari funk-stomp. You first hear Björk chanting the chorus over what sounds like a phone line — "We are the earth intruders/ We are the earth intruders/ Muddy with twigs and branches" — before her vocals fully blossom on the verses. The track is Björk at her best.
On "The Dull Flame of Desire," you catch another of Björk's Rolodex buddies, Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons, emoting in his handsome and dramatic tenor on a slow-burning duet that drags on a bit too long at seven-and-a-half minutes.
Björk's palette of "world music" — what a stupid phrase — expands even further on "I See Who You Are." The song features a beat that wouldn't have sounded out of place on Vespertine, with Chinese pipa player Min Xiao-Fen providing a thrilling bed of brittle, plucked strings.
Other guests abound, but what matters, as always, is how Björk synthesizes her friends into a not-quite-seamless whole with her formidable vocal prowess and a strategy of always thinking, "Why the hell not?"
That refusal to streamline her sound — to write in verse-chorus-verse, to come up with a consistent cast of supporting characters — is really why those of us who dig Björk dig her. No two albums alike, no pandering to trends: Björk does whatever the hell she wants. And we should be grateful that her record company is crazy enough to let her. 3.5 stars —Cooper Levey-Baker
(Warner Bros./Record Collection)
The new Spidey soundtrack is an alt-rock extravaganza featuring new, download-worthy recordings by the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs ("Sealings") Wolfmother ("Pleased to Meet You") and The Walkmen ("Red River") but it's the Flaming Lips that steal the show. Their contribution is a gorgeous, tricked-out piano ballad called "The Supreme Being Teaches Spider-Man How to Be in Love." Originally titled "Spider Man vs. Muhammad Ali," the caringly crooned lyric finds Spidey in the ring with The Greatest of All Time, but the superhero's real battle is with his desire to tell the world that he adores Mary Jane Watson. "I'm in love with you, but I fight the urge," sings the Lips' Wayne Coyne. "Muhammad Ali makes a third round surge." Brilliant. 3 stars —Wade Tatangelo
An All-Star Tribute to Lynyrd Skynyrd
Lynyrd Skynyrd rocked in the mid-'70s. I consider anyone who says otherwise suspect. But tribute albums usually blow from top to bottom, or they include one choice track, which never justifies the sticker price. This album's "buyer beware" moment happens right off the bat, with second-rate Southern rock band Molly Hatchet (with unnoticeable help from Charlie Daniels) trying to do a note-for-note remake of "Free Bird." Next, The Outlaws give "Sweet Alabama" the same rote treatment. As far as alleged highlights go, Canned Heat brings out the dark, bluesy backbone of the cautionary tale "That Smell." But nothing else on the disc warrants praise. 2 stars —WT