First Night: Video queen who can play, rewind and go forward fast

Bjork: London Palladium
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The Independent Online
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 in front of a ragged backcloth. To the right, stooped the solitary Mark Bell, ready to operate pre-programmed backing tracks. Then came Bjork, dark-haired in a 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. She is a kind of dance act, an indie trooper, an avant-garde Shirley Bassey, a fashion icon, a pop idol and the quintessential video star for the Nineties. The last attribute is demonstrated by the collection of clips of wildly variable quality and content in her new VHS compilation Volumen. Whether she is swooning in expensive special effects or flattened in unflattering monochrome, her gurning features and jerky movements are screaming "watch me, me, me"!

She is a genuine creative musician. On stage, the wonderful wayward instrument of her voice becomes more like a continuous story-telling improvisation that can meld the histrionics of "Isobel" and the commentary of "Human Behaviour" into a bigger totality.

Where the Shepherd's Bush Empire gig of February 1997 (available on video) used a band including the wonderful Yasuhiro "Coba" Kobayahsi on accordion and Maltese drummer Trevor Morais, the latest version 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 ideal for Bjork's intimate electro- chamber pop. Unfortunately, the audience was punished by cloth-eared sound mix better suited to a stadium rock gig. 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 hits, from "Hunter" to "Violently Happy" and we thrilled to the light show, but we did not really hear enough of the music in that unique voice.