While Múm sometimes succumbs to the monotony that’s a predictable risk for chill electronic acts, in Smilewound the group has brought together a set of intricately-crafted folktronic songs that are always enjoyable, and occasionally even breathtaking.
“It’s difficult to think of Iceland without thinking of superlative music,” claims Reykjavík-based website Iceland Music Export (IMX). To support this assertion, the site goes on to list a few of the nation’s great contributions to the world of music: The Sugarcubes, Sigur Rós, and Mugison.
Those three bands make for a strong enough case as is, but IMX plays its trump card when it names múm – one of the most eminent acts in the glitch and folktronica subgenres. In 2000, the group released its debut LP Yesterday Was Dramatic – Today Is OK, whose combination of gelid electronic beats and warm folk instrumentation has since earned it “classic” status in the ears of electronic music listeners the world over.
Múm remained pretty consistent with its next couple of albums, 2002’s Finally We Are No One and 2004’s Summer Make Good, which were both rewarding examples of the outfit’s gorgeously chilled, yet occasionally soaring, post-rocky brand of electronica. But the band underwent a significant stylistic shift on 2007’s Go Go Smear the Poison Ivy. For that record, as well as its follow-up Sing Along to Songs You Don’t Know, múm eschewed the electronics and instead focused on creating cutesy folk songs. The results were sweet, but mixed.
The group has reinvented itself yet again with its sixth and latest studio effort Smilewound. Thankfully, it’s for the better. This new album combines the intricate folktronic compositions of early múm with the songwriting prowess the band developed on its two later, more traditional LPs.
The disc opens with lead single “Toothwheels,” whose cold, skittering beat proffers a welcome change of pace from the outfit’s recent output. The track also features stunning, elegant vocals from new singer Sigurlaug Gísladóttir. “Toothwheels” forecasts an album that is “airy, relaxed,” and built around “simple” but infectious melodies.
And that’s precisely what listeners get. The spacious “Underwater Snow” begins with a deliberate piano part, giving way to glitchy and wonky synth sequences at around the halfway point. However, the song maintains its poise throughout, thanks to another powerful vocal performance from Gísladóttir. Then there’s “When Girls Collide,” perhaps the most danceable track on the disc because of its frenetic beat and group vocals from guests Sindri Már Sigfússon and Snorri Helgason. It’s slightly reminiscent of a Spiderman of the Rings-era Dan Deacon song.
Múm takes it down a few notches with the aptly titled “Slow Down,” a tender love song led by returning (and founding) member Gyða Valtýsdóttir. But things quickly pick up again with the buoyant and new wavey “Candlestick.”
Then comes “One Smile,” Smilewound’s centerpiece and highlight. This is easily the densest track on the album, propelled by a thudding beat, speedy acoustic guitar, and sly upright bass and strings. Even Valtýsdóttir’s determinedly delicate singing comes across as exciting here. It’s truly a thrilling piece, but it leaves one wishing that the other songs would come close to matching its enormous energy.
While everything after this point is certainly easy on the ears, the listening experience becomes a bit monotonous due to the chilled, subdued nature of the music. “Eternity Is the Wait between Breaths” is a mildly interesting instrumental transition with a chiming foundational beat that is accented by orchestral strings and frigid synth. “The Colorful Stabwound” provides the album’s least electronic moment – It’s driven by an acoustic drum kit, with the rest of its somewhat jazzy composition performed mostly by piano and bass.
“Sweet Impressions” features drowsy acoustic percussion, but its bouncy vocal melody and tempo change-up towards the end give it an exhilarating climax. Strangely, the closing track “Time to Scream and Shout” does not generate much hysteria. This is not the rollicking finale the title would suggest. Instead, it’s the disc’s most ambient point, aside from its competitor, “Underwater Snow,” but sadly, the former isn’t quite as resonant as the latter.
Still, overall, Smilewound has the “airy, relaxed” esthetic múm was no doubt hoping to achieve. While the group sometimes succumbs to the monotony that’s a predictable risk for chill electronic acts, the group has brought together a set of intricately-crafted folktronic songs that are always enjoyable, and occasionally even breathtaking.