Thursday, September 19, 2013

Album Review: múm - Smilewound

Album Rating: B
Like its name suggests, múm has a way with understatement. The Icelandic experimental troupe mashes together bustling elements — a taste of post-rock, a dash of electropop, a pinch of folk — into a melange of sounds layered but quiet, striking a tasteful balance between detailed texture and sweeping soundscapes. Unfortunately, that delicate act is somewhat out-of-tune on the group's sixth album, Smilewound. It's a beautiful work, but the overall effect is one of strange detachment, as if we're looking at a sumptuous dessert from behind the frosty windows of a bakery and the baker has forgotten to unlock the door. With that said, when the album throws new twists into an old-worn indie pop formula, it reaches the heights múm is capable of at its best. If there's disappointment, there's also plenty to be pleased about.

The album's setting is a familiar one: sweet, soft-spoken synths, whirring bits of percussive machinery, and towering swells of piano and strings are all well-worn experimental pop tropes at this point, and they're all part of múm's winter wonderland. "Toothwheels" introduces listeners to all of these elements in a study of contrasts, the song's gentle melodic parts clashing with the hyperactive hi-hat action and thumping electronic beats. "In a world of complete make-believe, there's a chance to practice what we preach," goes the chorus, and one gets the feeling múm is trying to stretch this hazy, ethereal sound into something a bit more tangible. It's impeccably constructed, with only one tiny problem — just where are we going?

Sadly, this question is one Smilewound's loath to answer. This problem has two facets, the first being the separation of percussion and melody. The album is jam-packed with absolutely dizzying rhythms, but they're rarely given enough prominence to make an impact, often pushed into the background while the melodies go in circles that, while pretty and well-formed, are still circles. As a result, Smilewound occasionally feels lethargic and crowded at once. The second aspect, a bit thornier, has to do with aesthetic choices. Occasionally it feels like the band's aiming for atmosphere at the expense of momentum. Furthermore, in order to maintain its delicate wintry ecosystem, múm also risks toning down the melodies too much. While songs like "Underwater Snow" and "Eternity Is The Wait Between Breaths" are absolutely gorgeous, they meander in a transfixed state of chilly beauty, occasionally touching on tension or emotion but never building to anything.

In the end, though Smilewound is less about highlights or lowlights than the heightened reality it creates, classical and baroque leanings resynthesized into a futuristic glass-pop world, and when it hones in on what only múm can do, it's a compelling listen. In the album's strongest moments, it finds ways to bridge its two disparate fields of influence, like on the bouncy "When Girls Collide," whose punchy rhythms are carried by synths rather than hi-hats, and whose upbeat melodies bring some much-needed energy to the proceedings. The aptly-titled "Slow Down" pares down on the rhythms and focuses on the vocals —  "Slow down, so I can catch you," sings a haunting female voice in a refrain echoed through the entire song. It's a warm, tender moment that throws the album around it in harsh contrast.

In the back half of the album, múm loosens up a bit and gets a bit rowdier (which, to be fair, is like an honor roll student living wild by getting regular Coke instead of diet) in a welcome change of pace. "Candlestick" brings the group's chiptune influences to the forefront and kicks up the tempo to complement the emotions boiling to the surface. "One Smile" heightens tensions with its dancier rhythms (nicely accentuated with some fine acoustic guitar work) and seductive string parts. I like the vibe; I like the hustle. And "The Colorful Stabwound," despite its pacing issues, finds a momentum in the jazzy drums that it carries forward to nice emotional dividends.

On a hopeful note, the album closes with two of its finest cuts. "Sweet Impressions" completely forgoes the electronic elements for a wonderfully warm love song wrapped in sunny guitar strums, the triumphant intervention of trumpets, and frisky ocean drums. When múm regroups to close the song with a happy revelation — "You've got time for love" — it reaches Smilewound's most affecting conclusion. "It's Time To Scream And Shout" closes the album on a quiet but uplifting note, with spacey synth keys (nicely assisted with trippy production touches) and string sections bound for the skies.

That title is one to live by. Smilewound may be a little chilly on the edges, but it gives me hope that múm will find the strength to scream and shout its way out of the cold.

Track Listing
1. Toothwheels
2. Underwater Snow
3. When Girls Collide
4. Slow Down
5. Candlestick
6. One Smile
7. Eternity Is The Wait Between Breaths
8. The Colorful Stabwound
9. Sweet Impressions
10. It's Time To Scream And Shout

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