Sleep Chamber

Icelandic trio Múm carves a dream state out of experimental pop

Icelandic trio Múm collages memories, the more indistinct the better. Whether it's detritus of digitally accosted acoustic sources, or the impressions of sailors drowned off the coast of Iceland hundreds of years ago, as permeate the mood of the band's third full-length, Summer Make Good, Múm constructs songs out of distilled essences both firmly recognizable and ephemeral. Together since 1997, Gunnar Orn Tynes, Orvar Thóreyjarson Smárason, and Kristín Anna Valtysdóttir (founding instrumentalist/vocalist Gyoa Valtysdóttir, Kristín's sister, left in September 2002 to pursue classical cello studies) have developed a dynamic that, as singer Valtysdóttir describes it, makes most sense if encountered in a hazily dazed state akin to just falling asleep.

"Images start to come, and you're introduced to feelings you maybe don't know so well," says Valtysdóttir, an elfin character who speaks in a soft voice that tends to trail off.

"Often it's better to remember bits of things than to see them all clearly," adds multi-instrumentalist Tynes, who thankfully uses more concrete metaphors to describe their sound.

Múm make good: Gunnar Orn Tynes (left), Kristín Anna Valtysdóttir, Orvar Thóreyjarson Smárason
Courtesy of Fat Cat
Múm make good: Gunnar Orn Tynes (left), Kristín Anna Valtysdóttir, Orvar Thóreyjarson Smárason

Take Summer Make Good's opening couplet, "Hú Hviss -- A Ship" and "Weeping Rock, Rock." The former opens with wind-generated gusts and melodies dissipating in the distance. A minute and a half in, the wind fades away to daintily flitting beats, droning pump organ and accordion, and trembling viola, the instruments fading back and forth in a flickering dance as Valtysdóttir, in a childlike, birdlike chirp, softly croons of the bleakest of nights. One is led to wonder if this song was an actual campfire composition or merely the interpolation of many gypsy nights read about in books. Instrumentally, all of the parts assuredly interact, but could easily be separated into self-contained environs.

"For our purposes when recording, we [use] small pieces collected together and long sections cut into pieces," says Tynes. "We don't write entire songs before going in the studio. Our albums are finished when we have successfully pieced together the many parts. We don't worry about where they will go until the end."

This constructive process established Múm as a forerunner of organica alongside Four Tet, Manitoba, Dntel, the Notwist, and Boards of Canada, among others. The music of Múm always functions best in environments removed from traditional urban surroundings and shielded from contemporary distractions. For home listening purposes, a pair of headphones is an invaluable instrument in hearing the way their darkly spirited sounds bow and beckon. When on tour, their performances translate best in old theaters, rough-hewn auditoriums, and houses with time-worn acoustics, rather than your standard bar or nightclub.

Perhaps this is why Summer Make Good was recorded to sixteen-track tape through old amps and gramophones, and arranged on ProTools in a lighthouse keeper's house atop an isolated jetty that was only accessible by a rubber raft guided gingerly through jagged rock outcroppings. The title itself comes across almost like a challenge, since Múm spent much of the time weaving shards of sound together in a studio powered by a wind-up solar generator (it was later mixed down in fellow Icelanders Sigur Rós's studio) during 24-hour daylight. With the winds and ghosts that whipped across the sea's depths as the only neighbors, the band, aided by contemporary Orri Jonson of countrymen/touring mates Slowblow, created a work that creaks and groans.

But Múm stands apart from its Icelandic pop contemporaries. Unlike Sigur Rós, it wades into the sorrows with eyes cast low instead of head held high, digging in the dirt instead of attaining transcendence. In contrast to the slowcore shuffle of Slowblow or the glossy, creeping cascades of Worm Is Green, Múm is the thrift-store cousin: rumpled, reserved, and prone to scrawling surreptitiously in a closely guarded journal.

Múm's sound has gone from lulling fairytale flirt on 2000's Yesterday Was Dramatic -- Today Is OK and 2002's Finally We Are No One, to an Old World weariness. The mood is brood rather than bliss. The ambiance is more sturdy tangle than delicate latticework. The band's previous albums imparted the feeling of sharing lonely beauty with you, while Summer Make Goodis the tale of someone's immersion in total separation.

Concocted from sounds isolated, then gently minced, grated, and puréed, the Summer Make Good sessions were a soup left to simmer and season on the burner until the last minute. On "The Island of Children's Children," accordion yawns across chiming glockenspiel, Chinese harp, and digital twitters. Every minute or so, the sound ebbs away. The strokes become broad, and the song, unfurled, opens itself to vocals layered into a call-and-response.

"The analog way of capturing sound is more dynamic, has more feeling," says Tynes. "But digital can have more control. For this album, arranging it after coming off tour, we wanted to make something where the sounds were more distinctly interactive.

"But we also wanted to make some of the parts of it sounds that could not truly exist," he adds. "Digital lets us bend how sounds behave, but we use digital not to create, just to sequence and structure. Blending was the goal."

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