By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
In college, I was paid to rate the sonic qualities of distorted, inane, prerecorded sentences. Listening to them hundreds of times in an afternoon, I concluded that I was either testing cellular service from aircraft carriers or becoming a Manchurian candidate. Concurrent to this experience was the way I felt when I heard spritely iconoclast Björk sully her previously unadulterated voice with compression and filters for 1997's watershed Homogenic. Throughout that semester, the anonymous recital of "Canned pears lack full flavor" that I heard at work was offset by the enigmatic lyrics I heard at home. "I'm a fountain of blood in the shape of a girl," Björk sang as her enchanted throat's electrified enunciations thankfully deprogrammed me.
Whenever Björk comes to a creative cul-de-sac, she always returns to that voice. If 2001's vulvacentric Vespertine was crammed full of choirs, caves, harps, pagan bays, and music boxes, as well as sultry Herbert micro-hump and Matmos's sampledelica translating her introverted sex rhymes, then Medulla is her Deep Throat, in which pleasure can only be derived from her uvula and those of her fellow singers. Co-stars such as grandfatherly rocker Robert Wyatt, rhythmic dynamo Rahzel, mustachioed heavy breather Mike Patton, "human trombonist" Gregory Purnhagen, and the Icelandic choir coax out Björk's cries, their individual voices constituting the "instruments" of nearly every track. (Here's hoping for remixes from Diamanda Galás, Shooby Taylor, and Police Academy's Michael Winslow.)
Björk clears out the shiny machines to make room for the cast's throat-clearing, sighs, murmurs, fricatives, and hiccups, but among the countless rubbery lips, the manmade equipment is sometimes missed. Longtime Björk collaborators Mark Bell and Leila Arab produce "Where is the Line?" to delirious effect, building roller coaster whoops that scale and swoop, much like the Olympic head-scratcher "Oceania." California duo Matmos, whose forte is outré sounds, return to help shape the mouth noises of "Who is It?" into something catchy and palatable. "Show Me Forgiveness" feels like a sketch of a song, and on "Ancestors," which is carved from Björk and Inuit singer Tanya Tagaq Gillis, the sounds just wheeze weirdly, like an asthmatic dog at a piano recital.
An album of mostly sparse, restrained choral composition, Medulla culminates in the soaring finale "Triumph of the Heart"--quintessential Björk. The track's a capella structure leaves great gaps that Björk would have previously filled out with soaring sounds. Here, the song is skeletal, save for that soft palette.