Björk: Volta

B+

Björk

Album: Volta
Label: Atlantic
B+

Björk

Album: Volta
Label: Atlantic

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Björk is a lot of things—a freak, a genius, a singer with the kind of presence otherwise reserved for academy trainees—but she isn't funky. When she breaks from swooning to scat over rhythms pushed to the fore, her phrasing tends toward the upright and the staccato, landing hard on syllables and clipping words with a mind for punch. But she doesn't linger suggestively, as good funk singers do. She's a hammer typewriter slamming on the page rather than a roller ball dripping between tics.

None of which would matter if the headlines for Volta weren't so consumed with the album's union between Björk and future-shock R&B producer Timbaland. The truth is, the three Timbaland tracks sound kind of off: "Earth Intruders" works well enough through a spell of mechanical madness, but "Hope" hardly registers as Timbaland beyond a quiver in the bass, and "Innocence" finds Björk sounding lost amid a beat too tough and grainy for her.

Then there's the matter of Volta's prominent horns, which sound poorly recorded and strangely arranged: They add a '50s movie-soundtrack air to "Vertebrae By Vertebrae," but "Wanderlust" proves more typical, with horn charts turned naggingly sour and chirpy. (Whatever Björk was going for, it couldn't have been to sound like bad outtakes from Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk.")

So credit goes to Björk for making an album fraught with problems into something that still qualifies as a minor masterpiece. The truth about Björk's vocal presence is that it turns everything but her singing into details to be consulted or disregarded by choice. None of the musical miscues are offensively bad here, and her voice is so strong in the highlights that the miscues start to sound endearing. The vocal work in "The Dull Flame Of Desire," a majestic duet with Antony, is stirring enough to haunt for ages, and transfixing African harp elsewhere signals a mysterious undercurrent beneath even the most brash, defiant songs. Volta is a weird mess of an album, but it's also Björk's most approachable and immediate since Homogenic.

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