[13 April 2004]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
You’re nestled in a dimly lit shack, on a small island in the North Atlantic. It’s hellishly cold outside, but the winter temperature is nothing compared to the gale force wind, which whips around the house so hard, that just the mere sound of it sends shivers through your body. The severe temperature outside forces out tired old groans and creaks from the building’s foundation; every few minutes a deep cracking sound jarring you awake from the hypnotic white noise of the wind. You hear a dusty old record being put on an ancient hi-fi, the staticky crackle, a hint of tape hiss (or is that still the wind?) in the background. Trilling keyboard samples fade in, followed by the low, guttural hum of a pump organ, then a viola, guitar… and is that a banjo? Then, the sound of a girl’s voice starts singing, reminding you of the sweet, yet ominous theme from Rosemary’s Baby. The girl starts singing in heavily accented English… or is it English at all? Dammit, anyway. Pause. Track backwards 10 seconds. Wait a sec. She says, “silence” in one verse. Okay. Play. A lyric sheet would’ve been nice…
Iceland’s Múm love to screw with your head. It’s hard to hate anything coming from that most creative little island in the middle of nowhere, be it the otherworldly drones of Sigur Rós, the ever-lovable Björk (and lest we forget, those wonderful Sugarcubes), the sweet voice of Emiliana Torrini (okay, she’s half-Icelandic), or the quirky trip hop of Gus Gus. Múm, though, can be absolutely charming and entrancing one minute, and incredibly annoying the next, thanks mainly to those female voices. Twins Gyda and Kristin Anna Valtysdóttir were the focal point of the band on their first two albums, and their squeaky, elfin, almost infantile vocal style were the key factor which would make or break Múm with the listener. For some people it’s a bit of an effort, but if you just give in to those childlike voices, you’d discover some startlingly beautiful music, be it the debut album, Yesterday Was Dramatic—Today is OK, or the stunning 2002 single “Green Grass of Tunnel”. It’s like how the late Jerry Garcia described Deadheads: “Not everybody likes licorice, but the people who like licorice really like licorice.” Múm is definitely an acquired taste.
Now without the services of one Valtysdóttir twin (Gyda left in 2002 to study cello), Múm’s first album in two years, Summer Make Good, is more a product of their environment than their previous two albums. Written during a sojourn in a remote lighthouse on the northwest coast of Iceland, and then recorded in just seven weeks in another abandoned lighthouse-keeper’s house, the album is much more consistent, more cinematic than anything they have done before. You hear the cold wind, you feel the cozy, almost claustrophobic, isolated feeling, and the innate desire to be creative under such circumstances, making music from any object one could find, is palpable.
Since their first album, Múm has excelled at blending laptop-based glitch pop music with organic instrumentation, but on Summer Make Good, you can hear a growing emphasis on the latter. Softly stuttering samples and IDM beats still define the band’s sound, but more than ever, they now take a backseat to more natural, acoustic sounds, acting as a subtle foundation for each song. The best example is “Nightly Cares”, the album’s first single: opening with a subtle intro of trumpet harmonies and a softly played glockenspiel, tiny, innocuous laptop clicks initiate the tempo, as a fretless bass comes in, accompanied by Kristin’s hushed, almost whispered vocals. Layers of chiming guitars follow, along with real drums, which build on the lithe, sampled beat, and a jazzy muted trumpet melody. Just when you hear the song hit its climax, with all instruments in play, one by one, each instrument fades out, leaving only Kristin’s haunting voice and that muted trumpet. It’s dark, weird, and sublime.
The rest of the album just quietly ebbs and flows. You get the softly twittering samples and grandiose, Sigur Rós style guitar drones of “Weeping Rock, Rock”, while the unsettling “The Ghosts You Draw on My Back” has an oddly intimate feel, with Kristin squeaking in typical, enigmatic, Björk-like fashion, “I hope tonight you will touch my hair and draw ghosts on my back.” The dreamy, innocent “The Island of Children’s Children” contains the kind of kitchen sink style percussion that Tom Waits has specialized in on his recent albums, while the drowsily beautiful “Abandoned Ship Bells” combines glockenspiel and musical saw.
Summer Make Good is an album that begs to be heard with headphones, so you can hear every creak, every hiss, every tiny little sample in the background. It creeps at its own pace, with a sound so full, so warm and enveloping (even the silence sounds great, if that makes sense), that listening to it is like falling asleep underneath a gigantic quilt, as Kristin’s double-tracked vocals whisper sweet nothings in your ears. Múm can still befuddle you at times, but their records are never dull, and the trio has managed to harness their great talent, producing their most seductive work to date.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/mum-summer/