13 cubes

13. The Sugarcubes, Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week!

In 1989, CMJ, the chief trade journal for college radio, released a handsome trade paperback to commemorate their tenth anniversary. Distributed to all of the subscribing stations, the book was a bustling celebration of all the tremendous music that crossed airwaves during a ten-year span that saw college radio blossom into a genuine, if rarefied, force in the music industry. Further backing up the breathless music journalism was a set of CDs that touched upon the full range of music that had mattered to discerning taste-makers over those years, featuring everyone from Tom Petty to Megadeath. There’s no trace of that book or those CDs on the internet, barely even a remembrance offered up to them across the vast digital jungle. I’d love to get my hands on them again, just to flip through those pages and listen to those discs and reminisce about one of the greatest time to be livin’ on the air at the left end of the dial.

Among the various features was a tally of ten biggest albums on the CMJ charts during their publication life to that time. R.E.M. was very well-represented and I remember that relatively unlikely suspects Tattoo You and Beauty and the Beat were in the tally (I think the record from the Go-Go’s may have actually been number one), providing fossil evidence of a time when college radio programmers didn’t treat music that achieved popularity away from their cool, loving embrace as if the band that created it had gone ahead and changed their name to The Pariahs. The entry that I found most intriguing on that particular list was actually the most recent album, which also happened to be a debut release. That album’s placement among college rock stalwarts and other hugely successful acts seemingly promised ongoing greatness from the band that created it. The album was Life’s Too Good by the Sugarcubes.

That album and that band were quite unlike anything else that crossed the desks of programmers at the time. It will filled with jagged, almost abstract pop music that was sliced up by the strange singing duels between Björk Guðmundsdóttir and Einar Örn Benediktsson, as surely as if their vocal chords were actually straight razors. It was different enough to grab immediate attention and intricate enough to inspire deeper fascination. Like any such debut, the vexing question was how on earth could the band properly follow it up.

Their sophomore release showed up around a year-and-a-half later, in the fall of 1989. The album is simultaneously a logical extension of the angular sound they developed on their debut and a confused attempt to demonstrate some level of reinvention, perhaps in an effort to refute those who questioned the band’s staying power once the novelty of their sound wore off. Even the album’s title seemed to offer an argument against the latter point. Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week! could be taken as a pledge of longevity, although that pledge didn’t really prove especially accurate. Unless, of course, it’s taken into consideration that promising to be around as long as next week isn’t all that bold of a statement about the durability of the band. The acknowledged source of the album title is the classic children’s book The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, which includes the lines: “‘Glorious, stirring sight,’ murmured Toad, never offering to move. ‘The poetry of motion! The real way to travel! The only way to travel! Here to-day–in next week’s to-morrow! Villages skipped, towns and cities jumped–always somebody else’s horizon! O bliss! O poop-poop! O my! O my!'” I guess they thought O Poop Poop didn’t sound like a good album title, but it wouldn’t put it past Björk to revive that term for use in her solo career. Maybe as the name of b-sides collection.

The lead single from the album was “Regina,” a choice probably designed to assure the fresh faithful that the Sugarcubes were still on solid footing. Besides the not-so-small detail that it was one of the strongest tracks on the album, it gave full prominence to Björk gorgeous, otherworldly voice, turning crystalline tones into a lush, controlled bellow at the drop of a jaw. Einar’s vocals are clearly featured as well, but largely serve as a counterpoint, shouting out lines so sharply that they feel like non sequiturs (“I really! Don’t! Like! Lob! Ster!”). They’re backed by music that is rich and enveloping, a killer hook nestled perfectly into the crowning sunrise of the music. The lyrics are clunky and bizarre, as if translated imprecisely from the band’s native Icelandic, but they feel so right that they don’t invite scrutiny. Everything is in perfect balance, and it feels like the balance is casually, brilliant reinventing pop music.

The same is true of other songs on the album, such as “Speed is the Key” or “Tidal Wave.” Elsewhere, though, the whole thing seems poised to turn into a collapsing rattletrap. As if to compensate for the breakout stardom that was already beginning for Björk, the album occasionally pushes her too far to the background, making her voice just another instrument as Einar yammers ferociously at the forefront of the track. Then there are songs like “Dear Plastic” that come across as almost juvenile in their pile-up of dopey ideas. Compromised as it may have been as a full album, it had enough interesting material to still make it a great record for radio, instantly adding variety to a shift every time it was played. That’s got to be a major part of why it placed so high on this countdown, despite the fact that I don’t recall a lot of fervent Sugarcubes fans at the station at the time. With some quick hunting, it was easy to find something striking and good on the album.

As noted, the title of the album may have implied endurance for the Sugarcubes, but there wasn’t much left in the tank. The band only released one more album: Stick Around for Joy in 1992. That outing wasn’t well-received at all and it was lackluster enough that the end of the band almost seemed inevitable, as if it were the buried subtext shading every song. Björk released her first solo album the following year, launching out on a new career path that led to breathless acclaim and unlikely awards attention. Indeed, as significant as the Sugarcubes’ debut was, at least on college radio, Björk’s solo success so completely eclipsed that of her former band that the idea of a reunion outing is rarely even broached, even though it seems that every other disbanded group from the same era gets a turn on various House of Blues stages across the nation. For the Sugarcubes, that sort of reunion tour doesn’t ever seem likely to happen. Today, tomorrow or next week.

Previously
Introduction
90-21
20. Bob Mould, Workbook
19. The Rainmakers, The Good News and the Bad News
18. The Mighty Lemon Drops, Laughter
17. Couch Flambeau, Ghostride
16. Robyn Hitchcock ‘n’ the Egyptians, Queen Elvis
15. The B-52’s, Cosmic Thing
14. Camper Van Beethoven, Key Lime Pie

12 thoughts on “College Countdown: 90FM’s Top 90 of 1989, 13

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