Noted music writer slash Grapevine’s guest of honour Michael Azerrad goes wild at Iceland Airwaves 2013, wandering between venues, listening hard and taking notes. For his Wednesday report, he digs on Mammút and Emiliana, and has some words of advice for Retro Stefson and Ojba Rasta
On the face of it, a reggae band from Iceland is sort of a laughable concept: Jamaica and Iceland are both islands, but that’s about as far as it goes — the cultural gulf between the two nations is immeasurable. And sometimes the face of things is also the truth. Ojba Rasta are workmanlike musicians who play in the reggae style, and yet they somehow miss the point completely. It’s sort of reggae Muzak: imitating the sounds and rhythms of reggae and dub, but not getting anywhere near the soul of the music. It’s kind of like the way white-bread American singer Pat Boone used to do sanitized versions of Little Richard tunes. And let’s face it: it’s really presumptuous to call yourself Ojba Rasta but not have any Rastafarians in the band. I later learned that the band name is a pun in Icelandic, but misunderstanding the band name is a perfect mirror image of how Ojba Rasta misunderstands reggae.
The music imitates key aspects of reggae, such as its signature offbeat rhythm, but it lacks the music’s crucial, ineffable qualities, like vibe and groove. Aside from the weak lead singer, the musicians can play their instruments, but the sounds they make — or, more to the point, the essential spaces between the sounds — lack any spark or soul. It’s like a paint-by-numbers picture of reggae before the colors have been painted in. There is not one whiff of ganja in this music.
If you don’t hear the music you want to hear, make it yourself. It’s doubtful that a whole lot of reggae makes it to Reykjavik, so credit is due to Ojba Rasta for taking matters into their own hands.
It’s funny, though — on the very last song, they switched gears a bit and played a groove that resembled a slow-rolling Gang of Four rhythm part, with Middle Eastern-tinged horns and odd changes. It was somewhat original and relatively compelling. They should pursue whatever it was that inspired them to make that song; there’s more fertile ground for Ojba Rasta there. And then they should change their name.
There are some genres that don’t vary very much. The blues is a good example — to the untrained ear, it all sounds the same. And actually, the blues pretty much does all sound the same: the interesting, distinguishing thing is the variations that people do with it. I wonder if this is true with Icelandic art-rock too — does it all sound like the Sugarcubes, with subtle but significant variations? I was wondering this as I listened to the excellent Mammút. To these ears, they do sound like a slower Sugarcubes — the quirky singer even uses very similar growls, yodels and voice-cracks to Björk’s, while avoiding the girlish purr and singing full-throated at all times — but they do put an original spin on the basic idea, and it was compelling.
The music usually features slowly interlocking parts, dissonant guitars and a rhythm section that looks to vintage post-punk for its idea of danceability. They’ll lock into a lumbering groove and then lunge up into a big chorus, so it’s not just moody beat music, it’s also — deep down in there — pop. The music is spare with sound and dense with ideas, jagged and propulsive. While the Sugarcubes are in the house, so are bands on the Too Pure label in the ’90s, like Moonshake.
But this was not some sort of revival band. There’s a darkness to Mammút, and a joyous raging against that darkness, that resonates well with the current moment. Music that seems derivative and yet also seems thoroughly contemporary also applies to this moment. Mammút bear watching. They’re a truly interesting band.
There is some music that has an appeal that appeals to Americans and Europeans alike. And then there is music that doesn’t translate as well — for instance, French people don’t really get Bruce Springsteen, who is of course iconic in the United States. And then there is a sort of music that is very popular in Europe that we Americans just do not get. Even though it’s not really disco, we tend to call it Euro-disco.
In various forms, Euro-disco has existed since the mid ’60s: various dilutions of American dance music, played by competent, well meaning musicians who didn’t quite have the cultural sensibility that gave rise to the music and instead filtered it through a European aesthetic, thereby missing the point. It’s superficially elegant, a misunderstanding of its source, and thus somewhat comical to American ears. Like Retro Stefson is.
Retro Stefson plays typical Euro-disco: the slick kind of music that takes three different synthesizer players to make, combining modern r&b (without the soulfulness), denatured reggae sounds, piffly pop, toothless house music riffs, maybe a few bland references to African or Brazilian music. It is generic, quasi-sophisticated pop meant to be played in the background at trendy but mediocre bars and cafés from Lisbon to Helsinki. Even though it’s meant to signify a cosmopolitan attitude, to American ears, it sounds like the specialized music of an indigenous culture.
Of course, indigenous music can be great. But when the songwriting is weak and generic, there is no hope. Retro Stefson’s saving grace is its frontman, a charismatic and handsome fellow with a competent singing voice and a stage presence strong enough to inspire some whoops — both male and female — when he took off his jacket to reveal a well ironed white shirt and overalls. But when something like that is the highlight of the set, perhaps the music leaves something to be desired. Somewhere in Paris, though, there is a bar, full of people with nice haircuts and exotic drinks in their hands, that is just waiting for this music to surround it like blandly tasteful wallpaper.
Wednesday was a cold day, gusty and overcast, rain and snow blowing in at a 45 degree angle. It was a raw day in late autumn that smacked you lightly in the face. And yet just after midnight, Emiliana Torrini brought a vivid taste of late spring to a packed Silfurberg room at the Harpa. It’s spring in Brazil right now; maybe she brought a little bit of that with her.
Torrini plays what I’d call adult pop — there are no hard edges, the rhythms sway with a gentle, sinuous swing, the sounds and chords are bright and upbeat, the emphasis is on melody and lyrics. Granted, she does occasionally fall back on a very tiresome trope of the genre, which is a sultry, quasi-samba beat with tremolo ’60s spy-movie guitar on top; this seems to signify louche sophistication in this genre, but it’s a cliché at this point. Other times, she infused this type of music with surprising new influences — there was, for instance, some Nick Drake lurking in several songs. Torrini is also blessed with an excellent band: the six musicians effortlessly played arrangements that not only set off the songs and Torrini’s voice, but conveyed an elegant sense of restraint and tastefulness.
The venue was packed all the way to the back and yet Torrini managed to convey a clear sense of intimacy; who knows how she did that. Maybe it was her frequent between-song banter — I don’t understand Icelandic, but her sweet nature transcended the language barrier and it was utterly charming.
Torrini pulls off another fascinating trick, which is to give the impression that she’s interpreting songs that she herself has written. It’s as if the songs have always existed and she is only making them her own. And maybe they have.