Icelandic Rock

Chicago Tribune, 30 novembre 1989

Sugarcubes fight screams of ‘sell-out’ with their sense of humor.

Like a welcome rain, the Sugarcubes splashed onto the international music scene in the drought-plagued summer of 1988.

It was a discomfiting debut.

Singing tunes about car collisions, executions and other sensitive topics, the rockers instantly established themselves as pop music’s blackest humorists, and they came from Iceland, of all places.

To say the Sugarcubes struck a chord with critics and college radio listeners would be an understatement. The band’s debut album, “Life’s Too Good,” topped many best-of lists for 1988, and the Sugarcubes were judged best new band of that year by rock journals worldwide.

But pop-music fans are a fickle lot, and the Sugarcubes recently faced their biggest challenge-the dreaded sophomore jinx-with the release of their new Elektra Records album, “Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week.”

Much sunnier than its dark-hued predecessor, the album’s smiley pop melodies have left some fans screaming “sell-out.”

Between spoonfuls of Frosted Flakes at Elektra Records’ Beverly Hills headquarters, singer-trumpeter Einar Örn said the new album represents a conscious attempt to explore happier themes.

“We tried to make it jollier than our actual current mental state,” the singer explained. “We went through all the touring and the ‘Gee man, we just loved your album, you are so great’—all these people into the stardom. It got depressing. After a while, I started to wonder what I did wrong. I mean, how can you love an album ?

“We were in a happy state when we recorded it. It was like minus 59 Celsius, snow blizzards going around outside. We brought in our friends from England to record it, and they’re saying, ‘Oh, it is so cold here !’ We said, ‘Of course it’s cold, this is Iceland.’ And it was bloody cold, but it was great.”

“Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week” has garnered mixed reviews in the United States, where the album has become a college radio favorite.

But the European media, particularly the British press in the form of influential rock journals Melody Maker and New Musical Express, have not been as enthusiastic.

“We didn’t ask for all that hype, and now they’re tearing us down in Britain,” the singer said. “They built up the band to a godlike figure, so now they can’t praise our second album, can they ? They must pull us down.”

Perhaps Örn protests too much. When asked to describe the new album, the singer offered a shocking comparison.

“Pure pop in the sense like Tiffany and Debbie Gibson,” the singer said. Many critics would dispute Örn’s description. Unlike Tiffany’s and Gibson’s assembly-line pop, the Sugarcubes effortlessly scramble exotic styles like jazz, funk and reggae.

Singer Björk Guðmundsdóttir, whose soaring alto is the band’s trademark, is considered by some to be the best female voice in contemporary pop. The band’s other members-guitarist Thor Jonsson, drummer Siggi Baldursson, bassist Braggi Olaffson and keyboardist Margaret Orloffdottir—also exhibit commendable skill.

Musical skill in pop music, or rather the lack of it, is a big issue with Örn. The singer deplores the jackbooted blues rhythms favored by most of today’s rockers.

“To look at them with their big drum kits, yet they play a normal (4/4) beat,” the singer explained. “That can be done with a bass and snare drum. I hate that kind of pop music. It’s not like a train even. Rock n’ roll is supposed to be sexy, but I find nothing sexy about Richard Marx.

“So we started this band on the principle, ‘Why not create this pure pop band that’s concentrating on the rhythm section ?’ Not this boom-chick, boom-chick thing, but something with an imaginative drummer. That is what the Sugarcubes are for,” Örn said.

Beneath the Sugarcubes’ complex rhythms and frolicsome melodies, however, lie deeply humanistic lyrics.

The band addresses environmental concerns on songs like “Planet” and “A Day Called Zero.”

Loopy homages like “Cat” and “Bee,” meanwhile, veer close to animal rights anthems, or at least as close as the Sugarcubes seem capable of composing.

“My hope is that people will start to appreciate their surroundings, nature, other people, and stop trying to kill other people, sell them drugs or whatever. They have to appreciate the importance of being. That’s my politics. That’s my revolution. We don’t need politics.”

Judging from most of the Sugarcubes’ playful songs, one gets the impression the band is not very serious about its revolution.

The Sugarcubes seem to counter every insightful song with three silly, pointless tunes. “Why does it have to be serious all the time ? People meet me and they say : ‘You are not a demented chicken. Why are you so calm ?’ It’s because I honestly feel we are in deep trouble today. We may have created something we can’t control. But the only way to fight is with a sense of humor.

“It is not a refusal to grow up. It is more the wish to grow up and still remember how it was being innocent, even though we are not innocent. It makes me laugh, we are so silly. But still we are very serious about what we do.”

The Sugarcubes’ unique brand of pop silliness started in 1983 when Örn formed a band called Kukl—an Icelandic term for magic.

“We took the music very seriously,” Örn recalled. “It was very heavy and unhappy. It had to end.”

Discarding their art-rock pretensions, Kukl eventually transformed into the Sugarcubes—a pop band that would draw its musical ideas from “movies, books, beautiful people, ugly people—everything.”

The international media came flocking to the Sugarcubes’ door when the band’s debut album became a surprise hit. Most reviewers seemed amused by the fact that compelling rock music could come from an Icelandic band.

“They were surprised we didn’t have antennas,” Örn said. “So they didn’t take us serious at first. But they take us serious now.”

publié dans Chicago Tribune