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Iceland may be green and Greenland may be icy, but that old saw apparently doesn’t apply to rock ‘n’ roll: Finally We Are No One, the latest album by Icelandic quartet Mum, is undeniably icy. Believe you me, after spending a few minutes with this disc’s shivery keyboards, arctic vocals, and chilled-past-chill-out beats, you’ll be tempted to swap your headphones for a good pair of reindeer-fur earmuffs.
But that doesn’t mean that these sons and dottirs of Eric the Red don’t have a sense of humor. After all, their sturdy viking forebear was the very wag who got a good one over on his countrymen by making what’s more or less a frozen wasteland sound like a tropical paradise. So beneath the crust of Mum’s frosty formalism there burble warm springs of whimsy, which occasionally well up in the form of bloops, bleeps, blips, plinks, and squiggles.
Appropriately, the winsome foursome of Orvar Þoreyjarson Smarason, Gunnar Orn Tynes, and twin sisters Kristin Anna and Gya Valtysdottir met while working on a children’s play, in 1998. Their debut long-player, 1999’s Yesterday Was Dramatic—Today Is OK, won oodles of critical plaudits by proving that silly and serious go together just fine—even if listening to the album can be as annoying as it is gratifying. There’s something unsettling about a band whose MO is to serve up a lulling melody only to continually interrupt it with a nerve-racking array of sounds that conjure up nothing so much as the Marx brothers running around a toy shop and letting rip with every little noisemaker they can lay their hands on.
If Finally We Are No One is less schizophrenic than Yesterday Was Dramatic, we’re not talking by much. From the gorgeous sprawl of “We Have a Map of the Piano” to the playful percussion romper room that is “Don’t Be Afraid, You Have Just Got Your Eyes Closed,” there’s a little something here for everyone. Excepting, of course—and you’ve got to tip your Foghat to them, they’re the bloomin’ salt of the earth—that sizable contingent that still subscribes to the quaint belief that it ain’t rock unless it comes complete with some loud guitars, a tattooed dude or two, and, you know, a good ol’ four-on-the-floor beat.
Opening track “Green Grass of Tunnel” combines some heavenly vocals by the Valtysdottirs with a melody that, stripped down to its embarrassed undies, wouldn’t sound out of place on a Don Henley album. Imagine, if you will, that you’re floating almost weightlessly on a Peppermint Patty sea, blissed out on chilled vodka and liquid Valium, and…well, let’s not go overboard, the vocals aren’t that heavenly, but they’re pretty damn close. Even better, their disconcerting Nico-at-15 vibe turns “Green Grass of Tunnel” into one of those Janus-faced numbers that manages to scratch your pop itch and sound kinda avant at the same time.
For the most part, though, Finally We Are No One doesn’t offer much in the radio-ready department—which is not to say that these songs are hard on the ear. Indeed, at some points—such as during the title track or the album-closing “The Land Between Solar Systems”—you may wonder whether you’ve unwittingly crossed that invisible frontier that separates Iceland from the legendary easy-listening republic of Teshlandia. That said, Mum rarely succumbs to the temptation to produce aural wallpaper. There’s almost always something happening in Mumland, some oddball twist to give your ears a nudge should they begin to slumber. The band knows how to booby-trap a too-pretty or too-straightforward melody with plenty of glitchy snaps, crackles, and pops, and, as the fabulous crescendo that caps “I Can’t Feel My Hand Any More, It’s Alright, Sleep Still” proves, it’s equally adept at using dynamics to build drama.
Beautiful things happen here: The piano figure that runs through “We Have a Map of the Piano,” for example, sounds like a thousand Amsterdam dusks, and the bright aquatic squiggles and distorted music-box chimes of “Behind Two Hills,,,,a Swimmingpool” make it the perfect soundtrack for sinking into a blissful sleep full of gentle, Pee-wee’s Playhouse-inspired dreams. And if you’re not nudged in the direction of rapture by the Valtysdottir sisters’ otherworldly singing on the mournful “Now There’s That Fear Again,” well, buddy, the real-deal Rapture foretold by the all those TV evangelists is guaranteed to pass you right by.
If the arty impulses that drive Finally We Are No One sometimes make me wanna put my Foghat back on (and, hey, would life really be worth living without “Slow Ride”?), I never fail to submit to the sublimely cinematic qualities of “I Can’t Feel My Hand Any More, It’s Alright, Sleep Still.” From its “Lucky Man”-esque synthesizer-meets-accordion intro, which evokes images of provincial villages drowsing in the Mediterranean sun, to its storm-threatened middle section, to its impassioned Maquis-valiantly-fighting-the-Nazis denouement, this is the kind of music that makes me regret ever having said, as I have on innumerable occasions, that if it has more than three chords it’s a load of pompous crap.
Even better—and a whole lot less complicated—is the uberbouncy “Don’t Be Afraid, You Have Just Got Your Eyes Closed.” The greatest invention since that stupid paddle-with-little-ball-attached-by-string gizmo, the track hops like a kangaroo, bubbles like a hot tub, warbles like a cage full of deranged lovebirds, and in general forces itself upon you like what it is—an eager-to-please Ritalin kid of a song made by a band that doesn’t see the sun as much as it ought to and thus feels obliged to make up for lost time when it does.
If Mum doesn’t yet have as high a profile here in the States as fellow Icelanders Sigur Ros, it’s because America’s hip musical classes have always valued pretentiousness over anything that reveals even the slightest trace of humor. In an ideal world, Patti Smith would have to go to France to find adulation. That she’s received it right here at home speaks volumes about our inability to see through even the most transparent of Arthur Rimbaud-aping intellectual hype. But I submit, brothers and sisters, that things can’t stay the same forever. And I foresee a day when the lion will lie down with the lamb, Foghat will finally get its due, and bespectacled, big-black-shoed hipsters will do a twitchy line dance to Mum all across the U.S. of fuckin’ A.CP
Mum performs at 8:30 p.m. Saturday, July 27, at the Black Cat, 1811 14th St. NW. For more information, call (202) 667-7960.