Synopsis: The Essential Video Collection – First Time On DVD. All twelve music videos from Iceland’s biggest alternative-rock export are gathered together for one release that offers a comprehensive view of The Sugarcubes’ brief but critically acclaimed musical legacy. Video clips featured on this release include “Birthday,” “Deus,” and “Cold Sweat.”
The Sugarcubes: The DVD 7.5
eyelights: the early stages of Björk. the quirky DIY quality of the videos.
eyesores: the low budget, unprofessional quality of the videos.
The Sugarcubes are an alternative band from Iceland that were active from 1986 to 1992. They had a few hit singles and garnered much critical acclaim at the time, but now they are primarily known for being the band from which Björk sprung.
Björk had been on the music scene for many years already, having released her first solo album in 1977 (at the age of 11), then joining a series of bands, including Tappi Tíkarrass and Kukl. But The Sugarcubes are where she got noticed internationally.
Naturally, being a HUGE fan of Björk, The Sugarcubes have been on my radar for the longest of times. And I’d even picked up a CD or two through the years. But, for reasons that I can’t at all explain (or excuse), I never got around to them.
I recently discovered that a full set of their music videos had been compiled on DVD. Heck, I didn’t even know that they had videos, let alone enough of them to compile! But when I found out, I promptly ordered it from my favourite online supplier.
‘The DVD’, is actually an update of the 1992 home video release titled ‘The Video’. Because it was released before The Sugarcubes’ final album, it only featured videos for the first two. ‘The DVD’ includes the final three videos as extras to complete the set.
As can be expected from such a fringe group and so many years later (it was released 18 years after the band first formed), it’s a no-frills affair: the menu is basic, and each video introduced chronologically with a quirky doodle and the song’s title.
(Nota bene: I subjectively rated the songs and videos separately, in the following format: song/video)
1. Birthday (Icelandic version): Actually released as “Ammæli”, this is the band’s first single and it was a UK hit. Interestingly, this song brought to mind The Cure circa ‘Disintegration’, but with Björk on vocals. The black and white video is extremely low budget and static, consisting of an adorable-looking Björk standing in a room backed by large windows. There are superimposed close-ups of her face as she sings, but that’s the only frill. It’s all super hissy, extra grainy, and there are lots of digital blocking – with are actually an effect, not a defect. Meh. 6.75/3.0
2. Cold Sweat: Taken from ‘Life’s Too Good’, the band’s 1988 debut, their second single is a meandering number that I’m not 100% sure I like. Björk delivers some great growls, though. The video begins with Björk and the band’s other singer, Einar Örn, lying about on a pile of jewels and coins. He’s later seen running down a sidewalk, and she’s sings while walking backwards in a parking lot. Later, Einar Örn is tied up to a fence by a few guys while Björk sings in the foreground. It’s all so very ’80s. 6.75/6.5
3. Deus: This is another somewhat interesting ’80s alternative track (featuring a voice-over by, presumably, Einar Örn). What I love most about it is Björk’s chirpy chorus of “Deus, deus, he does not exist”. The video begins with shots of ocean waves with a large rock formation in the background. The rest of it is concert footage, shots of the band backstage, and then walking outside near satellite dish. The whole thing is spruced up with of a disembodied head, and arms reaching into a bra. Don’t ask. It was the ’80s, after all. 6.75/6.5
4. Motorcrash: The final single from ‘Life’s Too Good’ is a high-tempo track – the first of the lot thus far. The video begins at a crash site, with a crowd gathered around it. Then Björk and the others take the victim away and drive down a country road at high speeds. There are shots of crashes, lights, a siren, and a cop calling in on his CB to report. Towards the end, he’s chasing Björk. It ends with a crash, but it’s not entirely clear who the crash victim is. Was it her? Either way, it may be a low budget, poorly crafted video, but at least it’s exciting to watch. For some reason, it made me think of Björk’s “Army of Me” video. 6.75/6.75
5. Luftgitar: This is a weird one. It’s a non-album track that The Sugarcubes released between albums and it features frequent Björk collaborator Sjón on vocals under the name Johnny Guitar. It’s a silly song, but it’s fun. The crappy black and white video consists mostly of concert footage with superimposed shots of “Johnny Guitar” air guitaring (hence the song title). He’s also at the concert doing air guitar on stage (apparently he used to do this as an encore at The Sugarcubes concerts). It’s weird because the video makes it seem as though this is a Johnny Guitar song and that The Sugarcubes are the backing band. Anyway, it’s too early-’80s/low budget for me. Studio audio + bad live video = terrible combo. 7.0/3.0
6. Regina: “Regina” is the first single from The Sugarcubes’ follow-up album, ‘Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week!’ (which is not poor Icelandic English, but a reference to ‘The Wind in the Willows’). The album was released in English and Icelandic, but it wasn’t well-received. The video has a plane flying through smoke/clouds (hard to tell) and both singers floating in the air on makeshift parachutes. The plane (which has a big grin painted on it) is also found on the ground with two women on wings of planes, dancing in Hawaiian get-ups. At one point, the plane is substituted by Einar Örn in a rubber “plane” costume. At another, Björk is next to the plane, and rotten teeth are falling out of its mouth (which also recalled “Army of Me”). Oh, and there are flying lobsters. Don’t ask. It’s all very chaotic, nonsensical; it’s supposed to be fun, but it feels makeshift. 6.75/6.5
7. Planet: The third single from ‘Here Today…’ (“Tidal Wave” was the second, I just discovered – but only as a promo. And the video is not included here – no doubt because it was made specifically for the BBC). “Planet” features lots of strings, and is far more ambitious-sounding. So, naturally, I kind of like it. The video begins with an aerial shot over a body of water. Then it takes us underwater, where a bubble with Björk’s head in it is superimposed. There are also superimposed balls “floating” underwater and lights on poles on the seafloor. The balls eventually float in the air in another aerial shot of a mountain and desolate landscapes. There are inserts of Einar Örn popping his head out of a tub of liquid to sing and a shot of the guitarist playing while sitting on large rock in middle of nowhere. ‘s okay. 7.0/6.75
8. Eat the Menu: Strangely, “Eat the Menu” was never released as a single, but there’s a video for it. It’s a guitar-based number that is driven by Einar Örn and supported by Björk. The lyrics are silly, with him telling us to eat the menu (even going through a list of food) and her countering it. The video is a concert performance in a club, with superimposed stars, fruit and other foods floating by on the screen. There are club patrons eating, and dancing manically, weirdly. For this video, Björk has a pixie haircut. Ick. 7.0/6.0
9. Birthday (English version): This is pretty much the same song as #1 except with English lyrics. Technically, this one is called “Birthday” and that one “Ammæli”, but that’s not how they’re listed here. The video begins with shots of a landscape with a stuffed crow superimposed on it. Then we get to watch the band walking around in strange outfits, carrying colourful umbrellas and balloons. There are inserts of Björk with the crow, the band performing separately, and the band eating in a small boat in the middle of a water-filled volcano. There are also shots of children dancing, insects floating through sky, and some concert footage. It’s just all over the place, discrepant. What stuck with me was that, no matter how cute she is here, Björk looked goofy, crazed-looking. Was she doped up for the shoot? 6.75/5.0
10. Hit: The lead single from their third and final album, ‘Stick Around for Joy’, “Hit” was (appropriately enough) their most popular US single. The song sounds more vibrant, better-produced than past efforts and it’s my favourite of all the singles. For the video, which is set in a warehouse and has a childhood/fantasy theme (reminding me of Alice in Wonderland and Babes in Toyland), Björk is playing with dolls and later is found lying on a bed, singing. There are also inserts of a female harlequin playing the accordion and playing on a swing, a clown dancing, and a drummer boy beating his drum. There are also inserts of some dolls animated to do such things as making out, that sort of thing. The video consists of a lot of quick cuts and it was akin to Björk’s solo stuff more than previous Sugarcubes videos. 7.25/7.0
11. Walkabout: “Walkabout” is a good, fun rock song – nothing special, but decent enough. The video, however, is playful and rather amusing. It’s like a behind-the-scenes montage of a video shoot with all sorts of themes (jungle, farm, fields, …etc.) and actors. The band also plays in that same space. I like it. 7.0/7.0
12. Vitamin: “Vitamin” has more of a punk vibe, with a delightful “wooooo” repeated over and over again. It’s less of a Björk song, more of a band song. And, for some reason, it sounds recorded in a can. The video is 8mm footage of all sorts cut together quickly, like a bunch of home movies. There are also inserts of a guy in goggles and rubber clothing, fiddling with his gloves, wandering outside. It’s a chaotic jumble, which fits song. 6.75/6.0
There also appears to be a final single from ‘Stick Around for Joy’, “Leash Called Love”, but there doesn’t seem to be a video for it. At least, it’s not on this DVD compilation. I think it may merely have been a promotional 12″, but not an official single.
Either way, those 12 tracks were enough for me in one sitting. I got a sense of what The Sugarcubes were like without overdosing on them, which was good – because, truth be told, I’m not digging them as much as I do Björk’s oeuvre since. It’s interesting to me, no more.
My impression is of an eccentric, loosely constructed band that was just having fun, got caught up in a sea of adulation and didn’t really know what to do with it. They did the best they could but were scrambling to stay afloat as they were being carried away.
I think that they may have been an even better band had they had more time to grow.
Having said that, in the last 6 months, I finally got all three of The Sugarcubes’ albums and their two compilations. I patiently waited to watch the DVD before delving in so that the videos might sound fresh, but I now plan on digging deeper, exploring the band in full.
I may not like The Sugarcubes as much as I do Björk (or many of her other bands/projects), but it’s a unique band and I think that it’s worth exploring their output to some degree. There’s even a concert DVD that’s been released, that I just might check out.
Stick around for more.
Date of viewing: Jan 31, 2015