Once you’ve conquered the world of pop music, what’s left to do? Why, a little bit of soundtracking, of course!
Perhaps I exaggerate—the man known only as Mugison (though he also has a tendency of referring to himself as “Mugimonkey”) isn’t exactly a household name outside of Iceland just yet. But in Iceland, he all but swept the 2005 Icelandic Music Awards, bringing home awards for best record (for 2004’s Mugimama, Is This Monkey Music?), best song (for Mugimama…‘s “Murr Murr”), and best artwork, not to mention the popular vote for favorite artist. This all in a year in which Björk was nominated. Heck, “Murr Murr” was such a hit that it’s available for free download on the Icelandic Tourist Board‘s North American webpage. Obviously, the man has pretty much conquered Iceland.
His name, then, must be a nice one to be able to put on Little Trip to Heaven, a movie that was entirely shot in Iceland, even as it is the English-language directorial debut of Icelandic auteur Baltasar Kormákur. It lends an air of authenticity, giving his homeland a little extra something to crow about in the process. Perhaps predictably, Mugison’s Little Trip sounds very, uh, “soundtracky”, though not in a way that evokes, say, John Williams or Howard Shore. Actually, this sounds a bit more like Tom Waits doing instrumental music (minus the copious pots and pans that such a description would imply)—a little bit messy, a lot eclectic, and careening between quiet, reflective pieces, faux-cabaret, and adding a small helping or two of noisy dissonance.
Most of the pieces are under three minutes long, short musical ideas that show up for just enough time to get a mood across and end, as I’m sure the movie calls for. Particularly evocative amongst these short pieces are the two parts of “Mugicone”, the first part of which uses two distinct guitars and some “ooooh” vocals courtesy of one Rúna Esradóttir to create a creepy little mood, while the latter takes the same chord progression and general sound, slows it down, and adds some piano work (also from Ms. Esradóttir) to give the creepiness a far more sensitive, human touch, before exploding into a messy, guitar-dominated rock bridge and back again. All this in the space of just over two minutes, of course. “Alone in a Hotel” is slightly off-kilter serenity, beatless horns playing a quiet hymn to themselves, and “Stiff” is just noise, static, and reverb with distant instruments occasionally threatening melody. The most realized of these instrumental bits, however, actually happens to be the longest—a little something called “Pétur Þór Ben” that happens to be an intriguing little piece with some interesting guitar soloing, played by fellow Icelandic artist Pétur Þór Ben. Hence the name. Of course.
Decent as the instrumental work is, however, it sounds largely empty, and I can’t help but shake the feeling that this is largely due to the presence of three (well, three and a half if you count the mostly unintelligible mumbling of “Clip 10”) Mugison vocal tracks.
After a brief intro (another track named after its performer, actually, percussionist Pétur Grétarsson), we are launched into “Go Blind”, a blues stompin’, falsetto-singin’, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins screechin’ red herring—this sort of noisy fun is never again explored on the disc. Rather, we get something like the album’s pseudo-title track, a cover of Tom Waits’ own Closing Time standout “Little Trip to Heaven” that replaces the muted trumpet with slide guitars. For his part, Mugison restrains himself from trying to imitate Waits, and just sings away, wistfully and beautifully, taking the song out of Waits’ empty bar and into a slightly chilled, cloud-covered day. Being given something as lovely as “Little Trip to Heaven” on our way into instrumental mood music is, simply, a tease.
It might be easy to let this go if Mugison didn’t tack a slower, acoustic-dominated version of aforementioned hit “Murr Murr” onto the end of the album as a hidden track. That track does exist, however, serving to remind us what we’ve been missing out on for the rest of Little Trip—that is, we’ve had only a small taste of Mugison the brilliant, eclectic singer-songwriter, and instead have had to deal with Mugison the average-to-good scene-setter. This isn’t Mugison’s first foray into soundtrack work (2004’s Niceland stakes that claim), and probably won’t be his last, for good reason—he’s pretty good at this atmospheric stuff. Still, both soundtracks are marketed as Mugison albums, with no indication of their soundtrack nature, and when you’re putting this stuff up next to his non-soundtrack material, well, it just doesn’t quite measure up, making it just about as well done a disappointment as one could possibly find.