"Volta" has a lot of the things you can always count on a Björk album to deliver: those soaring moments when the avant-pop pixie lets loose with her magical, rubbery alto; some of the most surprising rhythms this side of R&B or jazz; and, of course, a bunch of stuff that sounds unlike anything you've ever heard. So why doesn't it measure up?
One of Björk's greatest strengths has always been the way her sense of experimentation, even in its darker moments, feels suffused with joy, an almost childlike glee at the array of possible sounds to play with and the multitude of emotions to explore. But that effervescent spirit is largely absent on "Volta," weighed down as it is by the thinly veiled politicizing on tracks like "Declare Independence" and "Earth Intruders" and, even worse, a generally turgid musical sense. Oddly enough, the prime examples of the latter problem are the three much-hyped Timbaland/Björk collaborations, in which the rap maestro's metallic, shifting beats fit awkwardly alongside the Icelandic songstress' swooping vocal melodies.
But "Volta" is a Björk album, which means there are still a handful of unpredictable thrills: "Wanderlust" mixes some glitchy drum programming with a regal horn arrangement straight off a Gil Evans/Miles Davis album; "Dull Flame of Desire" features Björk and guest duet partner Antony Hegarty trading lines over a fanfare of Coliseum trumpets and rolling-thunder drum work; and "I See Who You Are" mixes torch-song dramatics with mournful Chinese stringed instruments. Those tracks ensure that "Volta" isn't an outright dud -- Björk is probably incapable of delivering one of those -- but it's closer to the sound of stasis than she has ever gotten before.
Favorite track: "Dull Flame of Desire"
"Keren Ann," Keren Ann
Along with Charlotte Gainsbourg, Sean Lennon and Feist, Israeli-Dutch singer-songwriter Keren Ann (born Keren Ann Zeidel) is part of a thriving subset of glamorous and cosmopolitan 30-somethings making pop music that drifts along in the netherworld between the "White Album's" quieter moments and the dark decadence of Jacques Brel and German cabaret.
Moonlit and melancholy, "Keren Ann" -- the follow-up to the singer's 2004 breakthrough, "Nolita" -- is a prime example of the subgenre's alluring sound: Guitars wrap around each other like lace, pianos say goodnight to sleepy cellos and Keren Ann whisper-sings about pink tourmaline and weeping willow trees. If it all sounds a bit too precious, well, it is. "Keren Ann" is a lovely album, but the oppressively downcast atmosphere makes heartbreak out to be a terminal illness. Except for a slight rhythmic bounce on the penultimate track, "Between the Flatland and the Caspian Sea," the album offers no suggestion of hope, no glimmer of transcendence. We all need a good cry every now and then, but we need more than that too.
Favorite track: "Where No Endings End"
"New Moon," Elliott Smith
Posthumous collections of unreleased material are always a dicey proposition. For every caringly assembled Johnny Cash/Rick Rubin album, there's yet another disc of subpar Jimi Hendrix or Tupac outtakes slinking its way onto the shelves. Thankfully, Elliott Smith's "New Moon," a double CD of rare and unreleased tracks recorded between 1994 and 1997, is much closer to the former than the latter. Full of rumpled, heartbroken balladry and Beatles-esque pop, it stands proudly alongside Smith's best work.
It's true that Smith's untimely passing, in 2003, casts a dark shadow over "New Moon's" sighing melodies and lilting finger-picked guitar, but the album is far from depressing. Unlike on "Keren Ann," there's never the sense with Smith's music that sadness is an end in itself. One listen to "New Moon's" beautiful, hopeful cover of Alex Chilton's "Thirteen" -- an ode to young romance and rock 'n' roll -- proves that Smith knew what Keren Ann doesn't: Music's power is that it helps us transcend our problems, not that it allows us to wallow in them.
Favorite track: "Thirteen"
-- David Marchese