This casual release from a group of ordinary young Icelanders is one of the most intriguing electronic-based albums of recent times. Combining lyrical melodies on acoustic instruments with complex Warp Records-style glitchy electronic backings, their music takes a long time to creep under the skin. Even after twenty listens, there's still more layers to uncover. Given their nationality, it's tempting to invoke Sigur Rós, but there's no similarity there, although a comparison to some of Björk's electronic experiments might work at a stretch.
Múm's inspiration is closer to Boards of Canada, in their soft-focused, subtly twisted compositions. But instead of the fractured vocal samples favoured by Boards of Canada, Múm's tracks take their lead from a quilt of warm melodies played on trumpet, violin, music box, and their signature squirming accordion, floating in and out like fragments of nursery rhymes. The closest thing I've heard to it is Susumu Yokota's "Grinning Cat", but on Yokota's collages it was much more obvious which were samples of classical instruments. Múm's blending of acoustic and electronic texture is completely seamless.
There's a distinctive inspiration for every track, such as the wobbly, stuttering refrain of "Smell Memory", or the oddly New Order-ish bass guitar strumming on "There is a Number of Small Things". They also have a knack either for sound-painting inspired by titles, or choosing very appropriate titles. "Asleep on a Train" shuffles lazily away with accordion and mechanical jilting, while some hazy sunshine rouses us on "Awake on a Train".
The little-girl voice of Kristin Anna Valtýsdóttir (even more extreme than Stina Nordenstam, or Alison from the Cranes), which features more on their later albums, only appears on "Ballad of the Broken Birdie Records". It's sugary, but in an spooky way, as she croons about a birdie who's lost his voice, over an edgy backing. "Ballad of the Broken String" unravels with twitchy crackling, followed seamlessly by their most Susumu Yokota-like track, the arching, glittering "Sunday Night Just Keeps on Rolling". "Slow Bicycle", with only a single picked-out tune, builds into something oddly triumphant for something so deliberately minimalist. (And it's not much like Boards of Canada's "Happy Cycling")
Judging by their performance at the Barbican Hall in London last weekend (as I reviewed here), this album is surprisingly well suited to a live rendition. Seeing it performed, trumpet, accordion, electronics and all, only helps to bring out its twining strands of melody, without destroying its intrigue at all.
September 22, 2005