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Björk makes magic with ‘Medulla’

This other-worldly a cappella album deserves a good listen. Also reviewed, Jill Scott, Papa Roach and Jimmy Cliff's new albums.
/ Source: The Associated Press

It's a great week for those who want a little something different in their CD players. Björk continues to break boundaries with her new a cappella album, “Medulla.” Jill Scott shows she still has more soul than most singers around with “Beautifully Human: Words and Sounds Vol. 2.” Papa Roach abandons the tired rap-rock thing for a real rock album, with actual singing, on “Getting Away with Murder.” And the crown prince of reggae Jimmy Cliff proves he's still relevant with his latest “Black Magic.”

Björk, “Medulla”Björk has said she finds her best, most loved music has been the songs she was selfish in making. On her latest, the Icelandic chanteuse has cast out even the instruments. Björk’s seventh album, “Medulla,” which refers to the spinal cord in Latin, gets to the heart of the marrow, so to speak.

The singer has pared away nearly all but the voices — hers and those of backing choirs and vocalists. But this largely a cappella performance is no Bobby McFerrin record.

The sound is other worldly. Björk croons above layers of mixed and unmixed vocals and the background of two choirs: a soaring, angelic one, and a deep, baritone chorus that could easily double as the voice of God or a cranky whale.

Björk’s voice, it must be said, in its wild, unpredictable fluctuations of soaring soprano and devastating frankness, is one of few that deserves such a spotlight.

There are moments when her voice melds on top of the others, building into a frenzy of sound. The best example of this is “Mouths Cradle,” which is paced by a “glug, glug” sample of what might as well be the emptying of a gallon bottle of water.

Speaking of water, the first single from the disc is “Oceania,” a tune Björk crafted for the Olympics opening ceremony. It is a bizarre, watery song of jumbled waves of vocal samples. When Björk performed the song in Athens, she wore an ice blue gown that flowed out like water — reminiscent in its uniqueness to the infamous swan dress she wore to the Oscars in 2001.

On this conglomeration of vocal cords, it makes sense that even Rahzel of The Roots shows up. For years, Rahzel’s imitation of a DJ mixing has been making hip-hop fans exclaim, “That’s his voice?”

Still, it is easy to miss the usual dichotomy of Björk’s past albums, with fierce electronics swirling around her unbridled energy. It is no coincidence that the most exciting tracks here, “Where is the Line” and “Who Is It,” both contain more percussion and instrumentation than the others.

Though “Medulla” may not be as dynamic as Björk’s past albums, the minimalist sound is undeniably beautiful.—Jake Coyle

Jill Scott, “Beautifully Human: Words and Sounds, Vol. 2”

On “Beautifully Human: Words and Sounds, Vol. 2,” neo-soul chanteuse Jill Scott picks up where her acclaimed 2000 debut, “Who is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds, Vol. 1,” left off.

“Warm Up” opens with the Native American chant from the latter disc’s “He Loves Me (Lyzel in E Flat),” Scott’s rhapsodic ode to her then boyfriend and now husband. From there, the Philadelphia native — whose oft-operatic vocals strengthened during her three-year absence — continues to weave poetic tales of toe-curling romance (“Bedda At Home”), childhood nostalgia (“Family Reunion”), and community pride (“My Petition”).

She also offers another batch of affirmative songs that express what many women feel but can’t verbalize. The bass-heavy “I’m Not Afraid” is girl power at its finest; the piano-anchored “Cross My Mind” reminisces in naughty detail about an old flame; and the string-accented “The Fact Is (I Need You)” confesses that even the strongest sister enjoys the comfort of a man.

Scott doesn’t evoke pathos like her peer Erykah Badu (she’s the Ella to Badu’s Billie). But her organic sound — crafted in part by Jeff Townes (also known as DJ Jazzy Jeff) — is still compelling. True, it’s not as awe-inspiring as on “Who is Jill Scott?” Perhaps that’s because she’s already answered the question. Scott’s the “Golden” optimist still sweet on our minds like block parties and penny candy, and her mission is to uplift.

On the harmony-laden “I Keep,” the sage urges us to “keep on laughing, living, and loving.” In these troubled times, that hopeful message is very necessary.—Tracy E. Hopkins

Papa Roach, “Getting Away With Murder”

Watch out, Papa Roach is making music on “Getting Away With Murder.” No, it’s not the rap-rock sound of the multiplatinum “Infest” album. Nor is it the tortured sounds of the disappointing “lovehatetragedy.”

This is the Papa Roach where the music is loud, unusually melodic and thankfully all rock. The lyrics are sometimes introspective, sometimes angry and always understandable.

Who knew lead singer Jacoby Shaddix could actually sing, really sing? And the band could play, really play rock music? Die-hard fans will likely raise their hand and say they always knew. But for everybody else, who know the band only from previous music videos and radio play, “Getting Away With Murder” is like discovering a new band.

The first single (also the album’s title) is a head banger that offers ear-shattering drumming with, believe it or not, an electronic loop. Although the lyrics are decidedly dark, they examine the reprecussions of past behavior with a desire to change. It’s a theme that runs through much of the album whether its examining personal or political actions.

On the song “Done With You,” Papa Roach examines the behavior that destroys a relationship. But it is the last few songs on the album that are the most surprising offerings from the band, songs with a political message. “The Tyranny of Normalcy” examines a government motivated by fear and greed and “Blanket of Fear” is about the shroud of fear surrounding people in wake of war and terrorism.

Any way you splice it on “Getting Away With Murder,” Papa Roach has come up with something tangible, something real for rock music listeners to grab on to and rock out to.—Chelsea J. Carter

Jimmy Cliff, “Black Magic”

If Bob Marley is reggae’s king, Jimmy Cliff is its prince.

The veteran Jamaican singer has the royal lineage. He started his career in the early ’60s ska scene in Kingston while still a teenager and has grown along with the music through its many permutations.

On “Black Magic” Cliff shows he’s as relevant as ever to reggae. His supple voice sounds right at home with contemporary backing tracks that owe much to modern dancehall and hip-hop.

Cliff’s voice is light and sweet, similar to the rocksteady crooners of his roots like Desmond Dekker and Dennis Brown. He flavors this with teasing falsetto touches, like a Jamaican Al Green. Cliff brandishes his vocal weapons on “Love Comes,” the album’s best cut. He growls, coos, hollers, whispers his way over a thumping beat.

“Black Magic” has almost total electronic instrumentation. Synths beep and swish while drum machines pulse in the kinetic tempo of dancehall, Jamaica’s answer to Top 40 hip-hop. But it never crowds out Cliff, whose voice remains strong in the mix.

Some famous guests chime in, including Sting, Annie Lennox, Wyclef Jean and the late Joe Strummer, who died in 2002 (Cliff has been working on the album since 1999). They are relegated mostly to the background, save Jean’s prominent rap on “Dance.”

Jimmy Cliff is the show on “Black Magic,” and he remains as energetic as the reggae rebel of his youth — never out of tune or out of style.—Mark Donahue