I suppose Murta St. Calunga isn’t a real place. Then again, the made-up word conjures up potent images of islands, sun, maybe even an Air France or jj-soundtracked beach party. OK, it’s a Benni Hemm Hemm record, so we know we’re not in for downbeat electronica. If anything’s shifted on the 14-piece Icelandic group’s latest album, it’s towards a bigger, more varied sound. There are songs about Afghanistan, Brazil, and—as we’ll see—the North Atlantic ocean. The group still sounds more chamber-pop than big band (like I’m From Barcelona, the band has often defied listeners to work out exactly how they got all those performers to sound so petite), but Murta St. Calunga‘s still something of an expansion.
Benni Hemm Hemm’s music itself marries classical and twee pop in a bright, attractive way. Songs are built off single, repeating refrains—this applies both to musical ideas and to the words which, either in English or Icelandic, favour short, simple ideas. “We’re whaling in the North Atlantic” is a good example. Busting to life after a number of sedate, childlike repetitions, the track is a gorgeous horn-and-strings chanty buoyed by Benedikt Hermannsson’s gentle Scandinavian accent. The straightforward delivery reminds you of Jens Lekman, and in fact the two have collaborated on the 2007 Morr Music compilation Music for Hairy Scary Monsters. (Lekman contributed vocals to a lovely song called “Aldrei” which, if you’re a Lekman fan, is worth searching out).
Benni Hemm Hemm have always had this simple affect. What takes them further on this new album, past the children’s music of their previous release, is a willingness to play with rhythm, time signatures, tuning, and timbre in a way that is very modern, and quite adult. The upbeat orchestral pop of “Veioiljóo”, for example, includes a slight atonality in the brass instruments that is momentarily reminiscent of Maher Shalal Hash Baz’s amateur enthusiasm. The group is, as it has in the past, interacting in a new way with their classical upbringing. The album is book-ended by a dual take on a famous Beethoven melody, set two different ways.
If there’s a downside to the heady, romantic music of Murta St. Calunga it’s that the group return perhaps once too often to a formulaic compositional gesture—you know, it’s all hushed, acoustic guitars until suddenly in the second verse the songs “come to life” with a bright fanfare of horns and woodwind. Still, when they get this formula right, it’s difficult to resist. “Avían í Afganistan” drifts from glacial harmonics to full-band celebration, sure, but in the listening, you’re completely pulled along.
Murta St. Calunga is a modest release, and has the greatest emotional impact in its quieter, understated moments. Over an echoing guitar arpeggio, XXX sings “This old airport’s got me down”, a sweet, lonely song called “Early Morning Rain”. The track belongs in a movie, like much of Benni Hemm Hemm’s work—evocative, but built from familiar tonal language, it’s simple music with a resonance beyond its simplicity.