[3 October 2007]
Múm is a band that seems to exist by understatement, both through their understatedly lovely bedroom electronica, and through their quiet, steady production and release of albums. We get a new Múm album every couple years, never a repetition of the past, but never a major break from tradition either, besides a gradual drift from electronic to acoustic instrumentation over the course of the decade. Their last album, Summer Make Good, met with (perhaps somewhat unfairly) lukewarm critical response but doesn’t seem to have dramatically altered their approach. Not even major line-up changes seem to break their stride: originally a four-piece, classically-trained twin sisters Gyða and Kristín Anna Valtýsdóttir have each left in turn over the last couple albums, leaving the founding duo of Gunnar Örn Tynes and Örvar Þóreyjarson Smárason to rebuild the band into a new seven-piece with new vocalists, but the effect, on latest release Go Go Smear the Poison Ivy, is not so far removed from what preceded it.
Opener “Blessed Brambles” serves a good guide to the disc that follows. In the careful instrumental build sequence of layered accordion, tinkling synthesizer, and warm shimmer of texture and ambiance, in the sudden compositional shift to signal the entrance of human voice, in the developing rhythmic clatter of sampled and precisely arranged clicks, snaps, and clangs, like someone stumbling around a darkened kitchen—in all these aspects, the track hearkens back to older Múm highlights like “Green Grass of Tunnel”. On the other hand, the guitar parts have taken on a strange warble and noisiness, though never overbearingly so, and the vocals, though typically intimate and understated, are formed of a chorus of male and female voices, lending a fuller sound than the twins’ pale, breathy vocals ever could. The lyrics, where distinguishable, seem to be a little more outwardly-directed than in the past as well, as in the album title line, seemingly urging listeners to embrace the world around them, itchy rashes and all. The track also hits a somewhat higher peak energy than typical for the band, the fuzz guitar forming the backdrop for a triumphant trumpet line.
Moving forward, “A Little Bit, Sometimes” possesses a music-box-like fragility at odds with its slow-booming drums, and first single “They Made Frogs Smoke ‘Til They Explode” distinguishes itself with a strange, curiously chopped “mah-mah-mah” vocal intro and interlude, which showcase one of the aspects Múm has always excelled at: melding traditionally pretty, acoustic elements with technically precise glitch editing to render them mysterious and unfamiliar. Later, “Dancing Behind My Eyelids” confirms this motif, as smooth strings and horns slide languidly over a twitchy, racing line of 8-bit beeps, and blurting electronic percussion is coupled with some sort of resonant tap-shoe construction. In between, tracks like These Eyes Are Berries and Marmalade Fires hold formation nicely, and even these less individually memorable stretches are consistently well-realized and enticing. Finally, the jaunty accordion and intricate percussion of “Guilty Rocks”, which sounds drawn from Eastern European folk music, mixing upbeat motifs with vague sense of melancholy, serves as bridge to the eerie, textured denouement of “Winter”.
Go Go Smear the Poison Ivy may serve as an affirmation, both of Múm’s lasting viability after flagging somewhat on Summer Make Good, and of the practicability of their new seven-piece line-up. This album may not be the minor classic that 2002’s Finally We Are No One was, but each song shows signature care, focus, and attention to detail, each rewards repeated listens by revealing new atmospherics and buried shadings of melody. There’s nothing terribly ground-breaking here, but it doesn’t ever sound like they’re just repeating themselves either. The band seems content to step quietly but surely through a series of solid releases—maybe their next will be a grand statement, but more likely it will be similarly careful and quiet and lovely—and perhaps that’s enough.