Pop: That's no way to treat a diva

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The Independent Culture

TO THE left, the six women and two men of the Icelandic String Octet sat down in front of music stands on a raised, L-shaped dais before a ragged backcloth. To the right stooped the solitary Mark Bell, ready to operate pre-programmed backing tracks from a neat flight-cased rack of matt black electronic modules. Then came Bjork, dark-haired and in an expensive white party dress whose sleeves made Christmas snow-angel shapes as she raised her arms.

Bjork is one of those artists who can do no wrong, invariably drawing anything from approving nods to wild adulation. She's a dance act; an indie trooper; an avant-garde Shirley Bassey; a fashion icon; a pop idol; and the quintessential video star for the Nineties. Whether she is swooning in expensive special effects, or flattened in unflattering monochrome, her girning features and jerky movements - at whatever point you press the play button - are screaming: "watch me, me, me!"

But where many ideogenic front-persons fail on stage, Bjork has the trump card: she is a genuine, creative musician. And without any sense of compromise, she appears to view live performance both as an adventure and a chance to satisfy the fans with the familiar hits. On stage, the wonderful wayward instrument of her voice becomes more like a story-telling improvisation that can meld the histrionics of "Isobel" and the commentary of "Human Behaviour" into a bigger totality. She pointed out (in an interview with Louise Gray in The Wire) that only now - after three solo albums - does she have a sufficient quantity of "good enough" songs to draw from for a major live gig.

The latest version of the Bjork roadshow relies entirely on the singer's performance skills to communicate. The lack of musical interplay between the twin "playback" poles of strings and machines meant that endings were often unsatisfactory, for example, but there were plenty of impressive moments: the skeletal drum pattern for "Possibly Maybe", skipping go-go- ish beats and clever digital distortion woven into the overall collage of Bjork's set. The string arrangements provided musical drama and some surprising reinterpretations of the older hits - when you could hear them.

You would think the Palladium's scale and kitschy charm ideal for the intimate electro-chamber pop that is Bjork's forte. Unfortunately, the audience was punished by a cloth-eared sound mix better suited to a stadium rock gig or hangar-sized club, with low-end frequencies that would have been better spent demolishing chimneys.

As well as losing arrangement details and string timbres, the live sound managed to obscure too much of the main attraction - Bjork herself. We heard the full range of hits, from "Hunter" to "Violently Happy", and we thrilled to the light show, but we didn't really get to hear enough of the music which that unique voice possesses.

A version of this review appeared in some editions of yesterday's paper.