Björk

Family Tree

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Equal parts retrospective, autobiography, and objet d'art, Björk's Family Tree gives fans a very special glimpse at the creative processes behind her work, collecting two decades' worth of her music and words in a unique, lavishly packaged set. A white paper sleeve embossed with work by Icelandic artist Gabriela Fridriksdottir holds a translucent, petal-pink plastic case containing five 3" discs of "Roots," "Beats," and "Strings"; a collection of Björk's favorite songs from her albums; "Words," a booklet of selected lyrics; and an essay by Björk explaining the genesis of this set, which manages to use phrases like "taxonomic structure" and "a new Icelandic modern musical language" without sounding too ambitiously academic. Scattered throughout are Fridriksdottir's paintings, sculptures, and illustrations, which mix a playful, organic sensibility with clean lines that are both futuristic and childlike. They complement Björk's work, and especially this project, perfectly, since Family Tree emphasizes her beginnings as a classically trained but rebellious young musician and her current incarnation as an artist who unites the cerebral with the emotional and the avant-garde with the accessible. Family Tree's detailed packaging is notable not only for its beauty, but because its very intricacy forces the viewer/reader/listener to slow down, savor, and contemplate the set's contents instead of consuming them immediately. This sets the mood for a very personal experience, which begins with the first disc -- Björk's greatest hits as chosen by the artist herself. Technically, there aren't many of her "hits" on this compilation -- favorites such as "Human Behavior" are missing here, but appear on the fan-selected Björk's Greatest Hits (which was released on the same day as Family Tree). Instead, Björk opts for intimate album tracks like "Unravel" and "You've Been Flirting Again." Even the singles on the collection, such as "All Is Full of Love" and "Hyperballad," tend toward introspection despite their state-of-the-art productions. As with the rest of the set, the greatest-hits disc doesn't pretend to be a democratic representation of her work. Only one track from Debut, the enchanting "Venus As a Boy," is on the disc, while Selmasongs: Music From the Motion Picture Dancer in the Dark's "Scatterheart" and "I've Seen It All" both made the cut (and deservedly so -- the only problem with Björk's Greatest Hits is that it didn't include either of these songs). Instead, Family Tree is an unrepentantly subjective look at Björk's work from the past two decades, going back to some of her earliest recordings. Though "Roots" doesn't include anything from her 1977 self-titled album or her jazz effort Gling Glo, it does feature 1980's "Glora," a pretty, quirky flute melody that shows that even at 15, Björk was figuring out how to integrate her classical training into her own sensibilities. "Sidasta Eg," from 1984, is an eerie take on indie/dream pop that suggests her work with the Sugarcubes as well as her later solo efforts. Disc one of "Roots" also includes the 1983 Kükl track "Fulgar," which in its post-punk artiness also points to her Sugarcubes days. That era is well-represented by "Ammaeli," the Icelandic version of their hit "Birthday," and "Mama," both of which hold up well despite the somewhat glossy, dated-sounding production. As good as the Kükl and Sugarcubes tracks are, their inclusion only emphasizes that while Björk may work well as part of a group, her own music (even in its earliest stages) is more interesting. Disc two of "Roots" offers a look at some of her mature solo work in different forms and stages, such as the demos of "Immature" and "Joga" that are very much works in progress, but no less beautiful because of that. The disc also includes "Generous Palmstroke," a live collaboration between Björk and harpist Zeena Parkins, as well as "Mother Heroic," a track from the Vespertine sessions that, like that album's "Sun in My Mouth," combines a delicate celeste melody with lyrics borrowed from poet e.e. cummings. While the song isn't quite as striking as the work that did end up on that album, it's still lovely, and Björk is the sort of artist whose outtakes are as worth hearing as her finished work. The single-disc "Beats" emphasizes the electronic aspects of her work and delves further into her demos, offering a surprisingly smooth, blissed-out version of "The Modern Things" co-produced and programmed by Graham Massey, her Post collaborator. He also gives 1994's "Karvel" a surprisingly straightforward dance treatment, albeit with unconventional drums -- it sounds more like an 808 State track with Björk vocals than an actual Björk song. Her work with Mark Bell and Mark "Spike" Stent sounds more like finished album tracks; "I Go Humble" mixes a syncopated beat with fuzzy keyboards, and while it's a little less special than what ended up on Post, it's most definitely worth hearing, as is "Nature Is Ancient," which resembles what "Big Time Sensuality" would've sounded like with Homogenic's burbling, distorted production. The two discs of "Strings" go in the opposite direction, accenting the organic and academic side of her music by presenting highlights of her collaborations with the Brodsky Quartet. From the lush versions of "Possibly Maybe" and "Bachelorette" to the percussive take on "Cover Me" to "Hunter"'s driven arrangement, it's clear why Björk has worked with the quartet repeatedly -- their expressive, flexible approach to classical and classical-inspired music fits her aesthetic perfectly. And while "Words" -- the collection of lyrics from songs like "Pluto," "Cocoon," "Headphones," and "Pagan Poetry" -- may not be as immediately exciting to fans as the demos and unreleased tracks, the economy of Björk's lyrics deserves to be celebrated, as it's often overshadowed by the dense, dazzling beauty of her music. With a line like, "On the surface simplicity/But the darkest pit in me/Is pagan poetry" or a phrase like "emotional landscapes" she manages to communicate a wealth of feelings in an abstract, yet precise, manner. This seemingly contradictory approach extends to all of Björk's work -- though she's on the cutting edge of music and is resolutely individual, she's still popular enough to spawn parodies on Saturday Night Live and Spitting Image and cause a furor over wearing a swan dress to the Oscars. Fortunately, she's also popular enough to be able to make sets like Family Tree available on a relatively mainstream scale. A mini-museum of Björk's art with a depth that belies its size, Family Tree's exhaustive, scholarly approach works simply because her music is worth studying in the detail that the set provides so amply.

Track Listing - Disc 1

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time
1 2:58
2 1:43
3
3:01
4 3:57
5 2:55

Track Listing - Disc 2

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time
1 2:51
2 3:05
3 4:40
4 4:40
5 2:42

Track Listing - Disc 3

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time
1 4:09
2 4:28
3 4:45
4 3:38

Track Listing - Disc 4

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time
1 3:36
2 2:48
3 4:53
4 3:42
5 4:29

Track Listing - Disc 5

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time
1 5:05
2 5:57
3 5:07
4 3:25
blue highlight denotes track pick