I will always have a soft spot in my heart for all things Icelandic. Landscapes, people, food, movies, and especially music; if it hails from the land of shaggy little horses and rotten shark you can count me in. I spent my junior year of college at the University of Iceland and fell hopelessly in love with the place. So the following review for Úlfur’s new record White Mountain will be inevitably colored by my penchant for Iceland and Icelandic culture, but I will do my best to harness whatever shreds of objectivity I can muster. If my deeply imperfect Icelandic serves me well, Úlfur means “wolves” and it is the first name of musician Úlfur Hansson. While the name Úlfur definitely tipped me off that I was dealing with an Icelandic musician, I might have guessed as much just by listening to the pretty, tinkling, semi-ambient music that comprises White Mountain as it sounds a good deal like other Icelandic music that I am familiar with, especially Múm.
Although Úlfur provide some lovely pastoral ambience and snippets of found sounds on White Mountain, anyone looking for cohesive musical movements, much less actual songs, will probably be underwhelmed. These tracks drift along, moving from one pretty interlude to another, without ever really getting to the point or seeming as if they have any desire to do so. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this; folks who are seriously into Music for Airports era Brian Eno and the zillions of imitators that era spawned, will probably dig White Mountain just fine. But I can’t help but feel like I am listening to discarded b-sides to Múm’s Yesterday was Dramatic, Today is Okay that did not quite make the final cut. White Mountain is pleasant and sweet sounding. One can easily imagine Icelandic sheep scampering about in some mountain pasture near Akureyri; however, the idyllic aimlessness of White Mountain is nothing that we have not heard many, many times before, and it never really pay off in any substantial way.
There is a romantic, self-consciously childlike vibe to White Mountain that seems to be a hallmark of Icelandic music in the last ten years or so. I sense that Úlfur is attempting to encapsulate in his music some idealized boyhood memories of tramping through the countryside looking for huldufólk and bothering the sheep. One occasionally gets this same feeling while listening to the other band Úlfur is affiliated with: Sigur Rós. Although White Mountain works this vibe perfectly well, it lacks hooks and sense of direction. Úlfur taps into an auditory world inhabited by trolls, ghosts and merpeople, and then he pretty much just sits down and gazes around himself with a bland, pleasant smile on his face without really engaging with his artistic surroundings.
I usually dig the atmosphere that Úlfur is trying to set, although it occasionally lapses into saccharine cuteness. If I were to play White Mountain for an average stranger on the street she might call it “nice background music” and she would not be far wrong. The thing is, I don’t believe in background music. I hate background music. This designation suggests that the music in question is music to be ignored, music that just fills in the gaps between the words of conversants. Now, I don’t really think that White Mountain really is background music, but it is forgettable enough to be mistaken for such on a first listen. Úlfur can work a mood and conjure mental images quite well, but he needs to develop his writing skills a bit more before running with the more aggressive wolves in the pack.