Movie: As a fan of pop music for over 40 years now, I have developed a taste for a wide variety of styles, be it jazz, classical, and top forty to name a few. Having read a great many music critics during the same time frame, I've come to the conclusion that most of them know as much about music as I know about nuclear physics when it comes to analyzing it in a meaning manner. This is not simply a case of a reviewer upset that a particular critic trashed his favorite song, album, or band so much as a casual observation that they are about as reliable predictors of quality as the current federal government is about judging limits on free speech. Simply put, if they like something it only means that it impacted them and should not be used as a guide (payola aside, far too many of them come across as supportive of bands that they are personal friends with or seem destined for success already). This also extends to most critical thought on the arts (reviews included) since entertainment is supposed to be just that; entertainment and people like different things. Some of you may have fond memories of Journey, while others prefer Selena, and still others prefer ZZ Top, but what makes one better than the other in objective terms? The answer is that for all the fancy words and reasoning, the only one who should decide what you listen to is you, not some soulless hack at a popular magazine, television show, or website. That said, most popular music tends to address a limited range of things, largely focusing on love and relationships (not to be confused with the band Love & Rockets) or social conditions like X used to do. On the other hand, there are groups that seem to use English as a second language that I've never quite understood yet enjoyed, such as the subject of this review for Sugarcubes: The DVD released by Rhino next week.
The band was almost an experimental formation considering how the lead players had been bouncing around throughout the 1980's in a variety of small groups in native Iceland. For the purposes of this review, I'll name them all, starting with lead singer Bjork Gundmundsdottir, (the most famous in terms of going solo), Sigtryggur Baldursson, Einar Benediktsson, Bragi Olafesson, Einar Mellax, Thor Eldon, and Magga Ornolfsdottir. If I spelt any of your names wrong, I apologize but I did the best I could folks. In any case, several of these characters were members of early bands together and eventually joined forces to form the Sugarcubes in the late 1980's. Their music was immediately recognizable on college radio in the USA as something completely different from the songs playing on mainstream radio. At the time, the airwaves were still recovering from the ballads of Pat Benatar, the lost loves of Kylie Minogue, or the droning disco-turned new wave songs of Berlin. Like contemporaries, The Cocteau Twins, I could read the lyrics provided on the audio CD's I bought and still have little idea what I was supposed to get out of their music other than something unexplainable. I know that probably irritates those of you seeking enlightenment or some deeper meaning but I'm not going to kid you and make up a bunch of gobbledygook as is popular when trying to convince people you know what you're talking about.
I liked Bjork's completely different style of vocals, the band's weirdness, and in the context of the day & age; it all seemed to make sense back then. I know some female leads of the day were propped up and made over to use their sex appeal to sell records but not so the manly Bjork. No, she seemed to follow her hippie footsteps and try something the world at large simply hadn't seen before, doing so well that Iceland actually gave her an island for promoting the country so effectively. The beat was difficult to dance to and infinitely complex in all the ways that music is dissected by the "experts", leaving me to wonder if the joke was on them or the audience. Still, in an offbeat way the music still sticks in my head and haunts me, nearly 15 years after the band broke up after an extensive worldwide tour. So as far as this review is concerned then, I'm simply going to tell you as objectively as possible what was on the DVD and how it looked/sounded when I watched it a few days ago.
The DVD itself is a compilation of 12 music videos, three listed as extras on the DVD. I remember seeing several of them in clubs or on MTV though by that time, the cable music channel had seemingly abandoned showing music videos as their primary form of entertainment. Most of them looked worse than I recall but keep in mind that technology has advanced to the point where a great many flaws that the tape format used to shoot the artistic little shorts stick out like sore thumbs and no amount of remastering in the world can fix it (though Rhino almost certainly spent some dough on such a project given how some of the later videos appeared). Here's the list of the videos, including extras, on the DVD:
1) Birthday- Icelandic
2) Cold Sweat
8) Eat the Menu
9) Birthday- English
As expected, the earliest ones looked rough and considering how limited their budget was until they made it big, I can understand why. I really would've loved to have had a director's commentary on each of them or even the band members talk about what was going through their minds when writing the songs or making the videos but I suppose the mystery factor enhanced the replay value more than if I had learned how each of them were obscure bits of fluff that made no sense. Heck, I watched the other Sugarcubes DVD coming out next week at the same time and the interviews they gave provided me with zero insight other than to more openly wonder if most of the band didn't speak English. Seriously though, if you're a fan of the band's releases, this is said to be all the music videos they released as a group and you'll want to pick up a copy. If you never heard of the band or Bjork's more recent solo material but you're looking for something way out in left field, try this out as a Rent It. I've long believed that people either love or hate the music the band produced so checking it out first will help you figure out which category you belong in.
Picture: Sugarcubes: The DVD was presented in the same 1.33:1 ratio full frame color the music videos were originally shot in by a wide variety of directors. As stated earlier, the earliest videos looked very grainy and had numerous visual defects, many of which I suspect were added in on purpose by this "post punk" band. The use of colors, special effects, and thematic elements changed with each one so suffice it to say that the DVD looks like a bunch of experimental attempts at outlandish camera tricks as often as not, with only a few that seemed to follow more conventional styles of the times. Considering the short nature of the DVD, there didn't appear to be any compression artifacts added in when putting the material on DVD but if there were any, they'd have blended right in.
Sound: The audio was cleaned up using Dolby Digital processing with the music offered up in the same 2.0 or monaural presentation the videos were originally shot in years ago. Unlike the lush harmonies of many other groups, the Sugarcubes always seemed happiest when providing a wailing wall of noise, especially early in their career. The separation between the channels was limited most of the time but compared favorably to my old CD's that I pulled out to check them against (favorably in the sense that the original music videos sounded really bad that is).
Extras: The only extras offered up were three "extra" videos, for Hit, Walkabout, and Vitamin. I wanted better extras and would've liked to see this one packaged together with Sugarcubes: Live Zabor considering how short it was but you take it as it comes.
Final Thoughts: Sugarcubes: The DVD was a decent exploration of their attempts at artistic expression using their music and the music video art form. Like most art, the quality of the material will vary according to how much you like(d) the band and its music. This is one of those areas that I've accepted we can all agree to disagree since personal tastes are involved but the time I spent watching the DVD flew by rather quickly and was over in no time at all. Such is how a fan of the group sees this release so your mileage may vary considerably depending on what you like to listen to and watch. Still, as companies continue to release older videos like this, I wonder how many people are still infatuated with the Sugarcubes versus how many people grew out of them so very long ago.
If you like music of all sorts, here's a few other titles you may appreciate that have been released on DVD in the past the past:
New Order, Tori Amos, Kylie Minogue, X, Pat Benatar, Selena, Cher, Galaxy 500, Sarah Brightman, Berlin, ZZ Top, Great Kat, Love & Rockets, and Everything But The Girl.