By Brad Taylor
As I was limping through Twitter one day on my second-rate phone, I happened upon a post from múm stating that they have a new album coming out. I almost forgot the band existed, so seeing the post made me super excited and filled me with memories and then a realization of how influential the band has been to me. A couple weeks after reading that tweet, with a handful of listens in my pocket, múm’s latest release, titled Smilewound, is a reminder of how delightfully serene the bleeps and bloops of múm can be and how balanced the band has become.
múm is too often forgotten when mentioning the music of Iceland. They have been overshadowed by two notable musical artists: the also very talented ambient minimalists Sigur Ros and the national icon Bjork. múm have been around for over a decade and they have put out some excellent music in that time. It should be noted that my entrance into the group’s music came in the mid-2000s (circa Fat Cat Records) when I was in middle school via a homemade video on Youtube that involved clips of the surrealistic 1970s Alejandro Jodorowsky film El Topo put to the music of múm (specifically, “The Ghosts You Draw On My Back,”), which influenced me to eventually watch the film and have my mind blown. Without múm my mind might never have been blown. And I also wouldn’t have had an Icelandic flag hanging in my room the last 5 years. Thanks múm!
Given my love of the band, and, by proxy, my excitement for Smilewound, I was afraid that it would disappoint due to high expectations caused by my nostalgia. It ended up only taking the duration of the first track for those high expectations to be reached. The opening song, “Toothwheels,” is driven by a punchy beat not unlike a handful of songs off of Radiohead’s Amnesiac. “Toothwheels” builds into a catchy and meaty pop-tune by infusing it with both electronic elements and stringed instruments alike. That isn’t the only beat-heavy song on the album: “One Smile” is a very fast moving track that utilizes not only gnarly beats, but also electronic sounds, strings, and a fierce guitar line completely foreign to anything I’ve heard from these Icelanders. That riff finds itself again on standout track “The Colorful Stabwound,” which maintains the theme of quick-driving-beat-heavy songs on the album. The most impressive quality about Smilewound is its ability to combine the noisy clicks and soft soundscapes of their first couple of albums with the live instrumentation of the more experimental Go Go.
While múm find balance on the majority of the tracks on Smilewound, there are a few tracks that lean in the directions of the past and of the future. Some rely heavily on synth-pop, using similar upbeat noises found on quite a few early works from múm but combining them with almost traditional indie pop vocals. This is not a bad thing, but the synth is heavy, particularly on “When Girls Collide,” so it will not be a favorite of those who distance themselves from the synth niche market. But it is a catchy song and it maintains the upbeat tempo of the album well. And for those who are more interested in hearing the softer and more ambient sounding múm, “Slow Down” and “Eternity Is The Wait Between Breaths” definitely deliver in quality, though maybe at the cost of the tempo of the album.
After 16 years of making music, this is the album that múm need. Smilewound works on the influences of 16 years of múm. They spent a few albums perfecting their ambience. They took it up a notch and incorporated unfamiliar elements into their music on succeeding albums, with varying success. Now that they ventured into that area of pop music and live instrumentation, they found out what works and what doesn’t. They’ve progressed and found a balance that works with their ambience. múm’s ability to find that balance between airy-electronica and poppy instrumentation proves to be the glowing achievement of the album, and the glowing achievement of the 16 year old band. Smilewound finds múm at their best in years as they discover the stylistic stability they’ve been searching for; hopefully they will grasp onto it. [8.7]