Sugarcubes Are Winningly Weird

Promising Icelandic rock group improves on past without watering down its quirky style. MUSIC: REVIEW

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

IT'S not just because they come from Iceland that the Sugarcubes are an unusual rock band. They're also a refreshing example of a musical group that started out with a strong identity based on a quirky, off-center style, and have continued to develop themselves in the American market on a major record label (Elektra), without becoming watered down or selling out to marketing pressures. Some credit must go to Elektra for taking a risk and signing the Sugarcubes - a band definitely outside of the rock mainstream. The group's recent performance at the Beacon Theater here showed just how much they've grown since this reviewer last saw them at the World, a smaller Manhattan venue, two years ago. They've settled down, smoothed out, matured, and extended their very personal style without altering it, after more than two years of international touring.

The Sugarcubes are Bjork Gudmundsdottir, lead vocalist; Einar Orn, trumpeter and vocalist; Margret Ornolfsdottir on keyboards; Sigtryggur Baldursson on drums and percussion; Thor Eldon on guitar; and Bragi Olafsson on bass guitar.

The show opened with Bjork and Einar playing the harmonica duet that leads into the hard-rocking ``Traitor.'' The diminutive Bjork, dressed in a short, twirly yellow dress, tights, and work boots, commanded the stage with her trademark cross between little-girl voice and savage, primordial yelps.

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Einar, wearing a Mack-Truck sweatshirt with flames on the sleeves, played alter ego to Bjork, with his weird, theatrical ``spoken'' vocals weaving in and out of her sung ones. Einar's role has become much more prominent in the band, with good results.

Much of the music at the concert came from the Sugarcubes' second album, ``Here Today, Tomorrow, Next Week!'' - including the delicious ditty ``Eat the Menu,'' the frenetic ``Dream TV,'' the regal and powerful ``Regina,'' and the catchy ``Tidal Wave.'' Unlike many second albums, ``Here Today'' is, in many ways, superior to the Sugarcubes' successful debut album, ``Life's Too Good.'' The new album shows their ability to reach in risky directions without losing their grip.

The band's stage manner has improved, too. Its previous offhanded ``who cares'' attitude has given place to a kind of ``show biz'' consciousness that really works and puts the group more in touch with the audience.

On the song ``Nail,'' Einar sings, ``Somehow people don't seem to like me/ I don't know why/ I really don't want to hurt them.'' Bjork adds, ``I think too much,/ I start polishing my behavior without any mercy.'' The two played the roles of a madcap bickering couple, with her chasing him around the stage, pretending to pound him. There was no nastiness in it, though, just fun. Einar was his usual goofy self, rolling on the floor, jumping wildly, even leaping into the audience and running up the aisle. But this time, everything he did seemed to be a part of the performance - there was no silliness for its own sake, no wasted time.

He and Bjork have become a winning team, as well as the focus of the group. Although they'd probably hate to hear it, the word that best describes them together is ``cute.'' So strong is the pair's charisma that the primary function of the rest of the band seems to be to provide support, which they did masterfully at the Beacon Theater.

They tended to business, never joining in the theatrics. Olafsson, Baldursson, and Eldon laid down solid rhythmic backgrounds, while Ornolfsdottir, looking quite prim in her ruffled dress, played her keyboards with dead seriousness.

One of the many high points of the evening was ``Planet,'' a moody, otherworldly ballad from the band's second album, sung with intense feeling by Bjork and made even more effective by the lighting - which suggested planetary spheres drifting across the darkness of the stage.

The biggest surprise of the evening was an encore: the hit song ``Birthday,'' from ``Life's Too Good.'' Bjork sang it in Icelandic, and Einar played some jazzy muted trumpet riffs around her vocal that might have made Miles Davis sit up and take notice. The backgrounds were funkier and more punctuated, showing that a good song - like an excellent band - can develop into an even better one.

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