[21 May 2008]

By Anita Schillhorn

When I first heard múm, I imagined a couple of guys in a dark studio mixing together orchestral records and shifting pitches on already eerie vocals. Then I heard that they were a band with a shifting and expanding group of members playing real, live instruments. This piqued my interest even further. When I heard they were touring the US, I had to see how this revolving crew of musicians and vocalists produced songs that evoked the changes of Icelandic seasons. In that vein, their songs conjure up the cold detachment of winter, yet combine this with the surprising rebirth of spring. It is the sound of fairytales—the crystal clear icicles dripping as the weather warms, the melt water feeding lush green, making what was once barren and ice-covered full of life.

Readying myself, I settled into Blender’s movie theater-styled seats as waitresses paraded up and down the aisles selling $8 cans of beer. In contrast, several couples who clearly conduct their romance to the sound of múm’s tender electronic songs huddled in the corners. I caught the last few songs of the first opener, Silje Nes, a Norwegian woman playing sweet ditties accompanied by her own guitar and a drummer. (On her debut album, Ames Room, Nes plays all the instrumentation herself.) She looked humble and simple on a stage that was clearly set up for a large band, and her music, of the same charmed electronic-but-not ilk as múm, lulled the crowd into polite readiness.

Her sound was lost in the energy of the next opening band, Hjaltalín. A flood of ten musicians, with instruments ranging from a bassoon to a French horn to a guitar, took over the stage to grace the crowd with an unexpected flash of perfect baroque-pop songcraft. Like an Icelandic Architecture in Helsinki (how’s that for geographical confusion?), Hjaltalín manned their many instruments and spun gorgeous pop journeys through orchestral landscapes and percussive plot twists narrated with a duet between Snow White and the hunter. Based in the outskirts of Iceland, away from the bright lights of Reykjavik, Hjaltalín are the perfect amalgamation of a small orchestra and a mutated rock group. They’re a band to look out for, especially if you’re interested in deftly played multi-instrumentalist pop played by energetic Scandinavians.

When múm finally took the stage, they were the mystical answer to Hjaltalín’s hypothetical question. Melodicas and violins were hooked conveniently to microphones, and the demure parade of the quaint and quirky múm members filtered onto the stage. The stage looked almost austere with the seven members of múm, especially after the crowd of ten from Hjaltalín exited. Surprisingly, they opened the show with the slow-burning chorale of “Winter (What We Never Were After All)”, which actually closed their latest album, and filled the Blender Theater with the crystal sounds of bliss for the next hour and a half.

In a brief music-free interlude, as a microphone was raised for the lanky Orvar Smárason, the 50th anniversary of the original Smurfs comics became the apropos subject of an on-stage discussion. Looking fully like they believed in Smurfs and would gladly play their anniversary party, múm continued with their set, which included tight renditions of songs primarily drawn from their most recent album, the long awaited Go Go Smear the Poison Ivy. múm danced gently to their own liquid tunes, playing the gorgeously sublime “Marmalade Fire” in the middle of their set, and delving little into their past, which includes a further three albums, EPs, and various compilation tracks. 

Apparently the following night at the Brooklyn Masonic Temple, they switched up their set completely, including more of their older work. With their ongoing knack for evoking lush landscapes and ephemeral sweetness, I’m sure Papa Smurf would have approved.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/mum/