Björk is one of ambient/electronica’s great fellow travelers. She’s a pop vocalist at home with the avant-garde, and her work demands to be heard alongside leading digital lights in both realms, through sheer force of aesthetic will (those favored barren audioscapes of hers, which one can’t help but compare with visions of her native Iceland) and conspicuous collaboration (notably with Matmos, whose feverishly curious studio concoctions helped fuel her Vespertine album and tour). And she accomplishes all this despite the fact that as a singer she’s a caretaker of an instrument whose absence is one of the few commonalities among most ambient and electronic music. Even as the guitar has become a standard-issue tool for laptop performer-composers, the voice remains a strange (and strangely rare) thing in the digital world — something more likely to be cut up (witness the tentative flirtations with vocals by Amon Tobin or Prefuse 73), or willfully unprofessional (check out Greg Davis singing altogether casually on his recent Curling Pond Woods), or strictly documentarian (Scanner’s found conversations come to mind), if it’s present at all.
Nonetheless, Björk’s forthcoming album, Medulla, is reportedly her most definitively vocal (advance promotional materials describe it as “an almost completely a capella landscape”), consisting largely of her own voice, and that of such guests as an Inuit throat singer, a full choir, and several human beatboxers, including Rahzel of the hip-hop group the Roots. Though the record doesn’t arrive until the end of the month, a virtual jukebox with one full track (“Who Is It”) and samples of the rest is up in various locations on the web (try here, or her own website bjork.com). “Who Is It” opens with a characteristically trenchant Björk yelp, soon joined by a second and third trademark Björk vocal tic, until they’ve layered so thick that the shifting tones bead tremulously. The featured segments of other Medulla tracks run the gamut of vocalese, among them: “Submarine,” which sounds like a detuned Beach Boys close harmony; “Desired Constellation,” with its half-spoken part settling above a field of microsonic ring tones; “Oceania,” which features some jittery vocoding; and “Triumph of the Heart,” which has a chugging human-beatbox backdrop, and brings to mind the multitrack vocals of Todd Rundgren’s 1988 A Capella album and (why deny it?) Bobby McFerrin.
Björk has always had a way with the web, and the Medulla streambox includes an interesting innovation: an invitation to apply to host it on your own website — you can share the love, and the burden of bandwidth.