Around the start of every year, I sit down and compile a list of upcoming albums that I’m excited about. It’s by no means authoritative, as I discover new releases worth getting excited over every week, but it does give me an idea of just how much my checking account is going to suffer over the course of the next 12 months. And as you might guess, considering my review of Múm’s previous album, I was pretty excited by the upcoming release of Summer Make Good, their third full-length.
A couple of live recordings and radio sessions had surfaced on the Web since the release of Finally We Are No-One, and each one left me all the more anxious to hear the band’s new material. But after listening to Summer Make Good, it’s obvious that the album definitely stands out when compared to the rest of the band’s oeuvre, almost painfully so. Not surprisingly, it seems like most fans and critics are split almost evenly down the middle. It’s easy to see why, as it’s very much a love or hate kind of disc. Personally, I happen to love it, though it does have some flaws that I find very difficult to ignore.
Any hopes that the band recaptures the naivete and child-like wonder of albums past will probably be dashed within the first 30 seconds. Whereas the opening moments of the trio’s (founding member Gyda Valtýsdóttir left after recording Finally We Are No-One to pursue her cello studies) previous albums brought to mind images of toy shops slowly coming to life and other whimsical imagery, Summer Make Good opens with a sound as desolate as you can imagine: a ghostly, raspy field recording of a stark gale that, when mixed with eerie drones, conjures up barren, crappy outcrops of rock jutting into and being battered by Arctic sea storms. Which makes perfect sense given that the album was recorded in a couple of lighthouses located out in the middle of nowhere. (Take that, Sigur Rós, and your posh swimming pool-cum-studio.)
The ominous opening culminates with “Weeping Rock, Rock,” easily one of the most spellbinding tracks the band has yet recorded. Again, the feeling is one of desolation, and it’s almost scary how fully-realized this sensation is, with wheezy horns, strings, rumbling drones and percussion, flamenco-like guitars, and haunting dulcimer (which represents only a smattering of the diverse instrumentation that comprises the album) all tumbling along together. As with the best sort of ragtag music, everything feels like it could fall apart at any second, or be torn apart by the rattling wind, and yet it holds together marvelously, creaking and groaning all the while.
It’s also on this track that the most divisive element of the band’s new sound appears, that being the lone voice of Kristín Anna Valtýsdóttir. Of course, Múm’s music has always been characterized by its childish vocals, courtesy of the Valtýsdóttir twins, but here, they seem to be taken to the nth degree.
It’d be far too lazy to dredge up the Björk comparisons, unless you imagined Björk as a tiny 5 year-old girl with a sock stuffed in her mouth. I can see how some might find it precocious, and even annoying, but it works quite nicely for me, reminiscent of Stina Nordenstam’s inimitable voice. But even if you find her little elfin voice annoying, it’s hard to deny the haunting effect it achieves in “Weeping Rock, Rock“ ‘s final moments, layered until it resembles a drowned children’s choir (or something else similarly spectral and tragic).
The next two tracks, “Nightly Cares” and “The Ghosts You Draw On My Back” continue in the vein set by “Weeping Rock, Rock.” “Nightly Cares” is highlighted by an aching, lonesome trumpet and delicate, shimmering electronics, which conjure up images of the band and their cohorts leaving the confines of their lighthouse studio and having a somber recording session under the Icelandic night sky. Intimate and hushed, “The Ghosts…” makes great use of accordion, conjuring up abandoned and haunted Parisian streets and bistros. And if you happen to like Valtýsdóttir’s voice, it continues to have a beguiling effect, especially on “The Ghosts.…” If not, I guess you’re just out of luck.
After these opening tracks, the band’s sound does begin to move in some questionable directions, and I’m in full agreement with those who find the album a rather uneven and flawed affair. “Stir” is a loose pastiche of orchestral loops and more ominous drones, and while it certainly contains the makings of an interesting song, it never goes anywhere or coalesces into anything. And while “Sing Me Out The Window” is a song proper, it feels like it never moved beyond the demo stage. It’s not a bad song per se, and has some nice elements, but when compared to what the band achieved earlier on the disc, it’s obviously in need of some more polishing.
“The Island Of Children’s Children” gets things back on the right track, at least for a bit. Valtýsdóttir’s voice is layered to nice effect, and the wheezy, rattling pace of the song gives it a certain whimsy and energy that might make you a wee bit nostalgic if you miss the band’s earlier recordings. Unfortunately, the rest of the album is pretty much a denouement once this song winds down.
As with “Stir” and “Sing Me Out The Window,” the remainder of the album isn’t bad but just nowhere near as realized as the disc’s finer moments. Interesting sounds and ideas abound, but for whatever reason, the band just doesn’t seem able to do anything with them, or make them go anywhere.
At times, these collages and half-formed songs resemble the material that surfaced in the band’s DJ sessions (such as the Blue Room DJ Session they did for BBC Radio back in 2002). Unlike those sessions, however, the album doesn’t allow the band 40 – 50 minutes in which to develop and evolve these pieces, and so they’re never anything but half-formed. And so the last tracks on the album just fade into the background, eventually getting swallowed up by the same desolate, windswept sounds with which it began.
At its best, Summer Make Good contains some of the finest music that Múm has recorded to date. While songs like “Weeping Rock, Rock” definitely take the band’s winsome, delicate sound in darker, more ominous directions, the results are nevertheless arresting and captivating. Unfortunately, the album also meanders quite a bit, and while I don’t think that necessarily makes the album the disappointment that most seem to find it, it does prove a bit frustrating.
Whether Summer Make Good represents a totally new direction for the band’s sound, a working out of the kinks associated with a line-up change, or something else entirely still remains to be seen. But even with the album’s obvious flaws, Summer Make Good is certainly no reason to write off the band or dismiss them. When a band changes up their sound as much as Múm has with this disc, there are bound to be bumps along the way. But when a band also achieves something akin to what Múm does with tracks such as “Weeping Rock, Rock” and “Nightly Cares,” that’s certainly reason enough to get excited about where their music might be heading.