“Tvær Í Takinu” Compilation

The Reykjavik flea market, like flea markets everywhere, is a hit-or-miss affair. There are a couple of regular full time used music sellers, but there are also random boxes of CD and vinyl scattered among the stalls. I’ve done well there in the past, but this year only came away with a few mediocre odds and ends. One of which was a $3 copy of Tvær Í Takinu, a 1984 comp of various well known Icelandic performers. Sure it wasn’t in great shape. But hey, I’d heard of most of the artists, so why not.

Turns out this is actually the second record of a two record set. Volume 1 was all non-Icelandic acts like UB-40 and Culture Club, while Volume 2 was all the Icelandic stuff. I’m not sure if the lady had Volume 1 somewhere in that box too… though if she did, I probably wouldn’t have assumed it was part of this and would have passed it by. Doh! Such is life.

Now supposedly this set is kind of rare, something to do with it being pulled due to the failure to secure rights to the Megas song “Fatlað Fól.” I of course have no idea how true this is, or how someone online arrived at the estimate that maybe 500 copies of this exist. But whatever. Still an interesting story.

A lot of bands and artists I’ve previously written about here are among the 12 performers on Tvær Í Takinu:

Bubbi Morthens, Megas, Björk,  Baraflokkurinn, Egó, Grýlurnar, Þú Og Ég… they’re all here, making this a pretty solid compilation. The songs are pretty poppy overall, much of it in that 80s schmaultzy way, but it’s still decent. If nothing else, it’s a nice cross section of the most important popular musicians in Iceland during the period, so if you can find a cheap copy, pick it up. And hey, if you find a copy of Volume 1, let me know!

“Rokk í Reykjavík” Soundtrack/Compilation

I got back into vinyl in the summer of 2011, and when we went to Reykjavik for Iceland Airwaves later that year I brought home some old school Icelandic punk and new wave records. Over the course of the next year my vinyl collection (damn I hate that word… makes my records sound like things that just sit inert on a shelf!) grew and my musical interests widened, and I decided to do some online research on Icelandic music prior to our 2012 trip to Reykjavik so I could arrive with a list of bands to look for. Needless to say, if you don’t speak Icelandic there’s not a whole hell of a lot out there, but fortunately musician and historian Gunnar Hjálmarsson (aka “Dr. Gunni”) wrote an entire series of 20+ articles about the history of rock music in Iceland that appeared online on the Reykjavik Grapevine. In English. Thank you, Dr. Gunni! It’s also worth noting that Gunni has written two amazing coffee-table type books devoted to the Icelandic music scene though these are unfortunately (for me, and probably most of you) in Icelandic, but totally worth the price if for no other reason than all the great photos.

So… armed with Gunni’s writing I began poking my way around the web, unearthing various bands here and there, taking notes, and being generally obsessive. My list of “bands of interest” was probably around 25 or 30 when we went to Airwaves in 2012, and I picked up vinyl (and some CDs) of a number of them at Lucky Records, meaning the work paid off. But there was one record that the guys at Lucky didn’t have, one that pretty much was the seminal collection of early Icelandic punk and new wave – Rokk í Reykjavík. I really, really wanted a copy of it. The double album is the soundtrack of a television documentary of the local music scene that aired in Iceland in 1982 (and I believe can be found in its entirety online in various places, though I confess I haven’t watched all of it yet), and one I was obsessed with finding both because of its importance and the fact I could get a lot of music that doesn’t exist on CD without having to buy a dozen or so separate, relatively expensive albums.

Seemingly thwarted in my search through Reykjavik’s record stores, I decided to take a stroll over to the flea market. After all, used records are the sort of thing one expects to find in places like that, though my hopes weren’t high. But there was one vendor there who, in the midst of box after box of albums by the Eagles and David Bowie had a small section for Icelandic artists. And it was there that I came face to face with Rokk í Reykjavík. I quickly counted out what cash I had left (no credit cards at the flea market, man!) and had just enough for three albums, including both this one and Bjork’s early Tappi Tikarrass LP Miranda. Score!

So what of Rokk í Reykjavík? Well, for one thing it’s packed with music – 19 different bands contribute a total of 33 tracks and most of the heavyweights are here, including a number of groups I’ve written about in the past like Tappi Tikarrass, Purrkur Pillnikk, Þeyr, Grýlurnar, and most recently Vonbrigði. It also has a bunch of other great artists like Bodies, Q4U, Fræbbblarnir, and Egó. There was a double CD version released which is probably a more affordable option if you can find it, though I’m not sure if it’s still in print (but I’ve seen copies online in the $25-35 range, a bargain compared to the vinyl). Quite a few of the tracks were recorded either live, or live in studio, which I think is great because it keeps the sound raw and maintains the energy of the music.

I was certainly familiar with many of these bands prior to playing Rokk í Reykjavík for the first time, and they often stick out. I mean, you simply can’t miss Bjork’s vocals on the Tappi Tikarrass tracks, and both Purrkur Pillnikk and Þeyr have distinctive sounds. But I was really excited impressed with some bands that were new to me. The low, plodding sound of Bodies’ “Where are the Bodies” stands in stark contrast to the energy and frenetic stylings of many of their country-mates; prog rockers Þursaflokkurinn stick out like a sore thumb with a much more standard style rock fare, but one that style sounds like it has that weird, twangy guitar tuning that I associate with so much 1980s Icelandic music; Friðryk almost sound like they’re channeling Meat Loaf with their live track “Í Kirkju” (“Paradise by the Northern Lights” anyone…?). My favorite new-to-me band is probably Q4U, since I’m a sucker for punk bands with female singers, and of their three tracks on the album I probably like the straight forward “Creeps” the best.

While most of the songs are sung in Icelandic, don’t let that scare you away from Rokk í Reykjavík. It’s the perfect time capsule, a snapshot of the Icelandic prog/new wave/punk/rock scene in 1981-82, a scene that was surprisingly varied and rich given the small population and relative musical isolation of the country at that time. The CD is absolutely worth the price if you can find a copy, especially if you just want to get your feet wet and see what this stuff was all about. Maybe after that you’ll start to get obsessive about it like I am. Who knows? Maybe it will even inspire you to visit Iceland!

Stuðmenn and Grýlurnar – “Með allt á hreinu”

One of the challenges about being into Icelandic vinyl is that it isn’t easy to find. Even in Reykjavik your options for older records is severely limited, with Lucky Records and some people who sell at the flea market as your best options. Combine that with most releases never being issued outside of or exported from Iceland and the country’s small population, there weren’t a lot of copies pressed of most albums. A lot of the classics have been reissued on CD, and I stocked up on quite a few when I was there last fall (eliciting an observation from the guy ringing me up at the store, “not the stuff I usually see tourists buying…”), but at the end of the day I’m still more into the vinyl. So what’s an Icelandic vinyl collector living in Seattle to do?

Well, fortunately we live in the age of fancy computers and Al Gore’s invention, the internet, so I have access to other music fans and businesses who are interested in selling their vinyl to me. And that, friends, is how I came across this nice copy of Með allt á hreinu for what I thought was a very reasonable price… in fact my total cost was less than it would have cost me just to have one record shipped from Iceland. How this record made it’s way across the Atlantic I’ll never know, but I was glad to find it. Sorry to my record selling friends in Reykjavik – I promise I’ll keep buying stuff from you when I’m in the country, but I can’t pass up deals when I find them.

Með allt á hreinu is actually a movie soundtrack (which translates roughly to “On Top”) released at the very end of 1981, followed by the film itself in 1982. The comedy follows the antics of two real bands, the all-male Stuðmenn and the all-female Grýlurnar, as they tour the country, develop a rival, and engage in general hijinks. I’ve reviewed Grýlurnar before on a previous blog post, and while they were more on the punkish side, Stuðmenn are pretty much all over the place, known more as good-time group that doesn’t stick to any one genre and often incorporates comedy in their music. This joint album was both very popular (allegedly 18,000 copies printed) and highly regarded, with Jonatan Gardarsson and Arnar Eggert Thoroddsen listing it as the 15th best Icelandic album of all time. Gardarsson and Thoroddsen’s book is a great resource to get a handle on some of the best in Icelandic music (Sigur Ros holds down the top spot with Agaetis byrjun), or at least it is in pictures since I don’t speak and therefore can’t read Icelandic. With no Rosetta Stone Icelandic looking to be available any time in the near future, I think I’m screwed.

Með allt á hreinu covers the gamut musically. You’ve got doo-wop, new wave, adult contemporary, easy listening, island beats, calypso (yes, calypso), Elvis-esque crooning, and I’m pretty sure I even heard a kazoo in there. It’s too bad hip hop hadn’t made it to Iceland yet, as I’d like to hear how they would have incorporated that into the mix too. It reminds me a lot of the Grease soundtrack actually – it’s a bit over the top and exaggerated, and more or less all over the place. The musicianship is great though, so the weaving in and out of all the different styles is actually quite enjoyable, as is the mix of male and female vocals. I suspect I’m missing out on a lot of the fun of this album by not knowing Icelandic, but the quality of the sound still makes for a great listening experience, so if you have an open mind and can track down a copy give it a shot.

Grylurnar – “Mávastellið”

The new wave era brought a lot of women into rock, including some all-female bands. Iceland was no exception, with Grylurnar appearing on the scene for a short-lived run from 1981-83.

It’s a bit hard to get a feel for Grylurnar. Mávastellið certainly has its own style. Some punk, but probably more new wave. It borrows a little from the blues, some from “classic” female doo-wop sounds, surf tunes, maybe a touch of Japanese girl-band sounds, and carries an edge. It’s hard to feel the songs as part of some type of overall theme on the album, with different types of songs and tempos throughout.

I have to admit, when I first picked this up last year I wondered whether or not this really was an all-female band, or some type of all-male gimmick group. Part of it is the way the band members appear on the cover, in extremely heavy makeup. I’m not trying to be snarky here, I just couldn’t tell from this one image if this was legit. Turns out that it was (and is) the real deal.

Of the 11 tracks, six come in shy of three minutes, and two clock in punkish fashion at less than two. The best track may be “Valur Og Jarðaberjamaukið Hans”, which has a sultry lounge sound to it, which actually reminds me a lot of BB & Blake (reviewed previously). The following track, “Betri Er Limur En Limlestir,” has a very HAMesque gothic sound, which is kind of timely with Halloween right around the corner. That being said, I haven’t taken the trouble to burn this to mp3. Grylurnar certainly occupies an important spot in the Icelandic punk/new wave pantheon… but there isn’t a lot here that excites me. It’s interesting, but not necessarily captivating.