The inclusion of Razhel, Shlomo and Dokaka on Medúlla was, perhaps, Björk's sly suggestion that she was ready to foreground beats again. One of the people to help her? Timbaland, who gets three production credits on Volta. It makes some sort of sense; if Björk had debuted in 2007, it's possible that she would have turned to the likes of Timbo -- who was in the midst of his production Silver Age -- instead of electronic musicians.
While Volta was refreshing in its redbloodedness, it's remarkably flabby for a running length of just 51 minutes. The album was released in different configurations -- some outros became intros -- which meant that for some releases, each of the first three cuts are over five-and-a-half minutes long. It's an eclectic mix of sounds, to be sure: four continents contributed players, helping Volta run the gamut from American to Zombo. And it's not as if Björk had been saving up all her instrumental ideas since Vespertine, either: in 2005 she released Drawing Restraint 9, the soundtrack to the feature-length film by visual artist Matthew Barney, her current partner. Though more formless than Volta, it similarly employs an extended cast (Will Oldham, Vespertine harpist Zeena Parkins, shō master Mayumi Miyata) and far-reaching arrangements.
The result of this cultural smash-and-grab is a record that smacks of curation, rather than collaboration. Konono Nº1's electric likembés are overpowered by Danja's synthbass and Timbaland's distorted "whoas". While the return of the long-dormant coy vocal flavor was a welcome thing, the references to voodoo and muddy bodies are beneath Bow Wow Wow, let alone Björk. "Hope" is a fine showcase for Malian kora player Toumani Diabaté, but Timbaland's contribution to the pattering throwback is difficult to suss out. Antony Hegarty's second album appearance (on "My Juvenile") is one too many; he does acquit himself well on "The Dull Flame of Desire," a brass-fortified duet of ominous triumph. (Oddly enough, the stirring horn arrangement of "Wanderlust" evokes, in retrospect, Hercules and Love Affair.)
Volta is certainly not bad -- how could it be, with a cover that stepped straight out of Pepperland? -- just overstuffed. Its simpler tracks tend to be the better ones. "Vertebrae by Vertebrae" focuses on pneumatic drum programming and horn honks suited to a film noir low-speed chase scene. Returnee Mark Bell, back in the fold for three tracks, provides the album's highlight: "Drawing Independence," an electro-punk fusion that goon-stomps into the red with claustrophobic bass and and carelessly triggered cymbals. There is fun to be had on Volta, but it must be extracted.