Benni Hemm Hemm: Kajak
Morr Music

Put mildly, Benni Hemm Hemm's eponymously-titled debut wasn't one of textura's favourite 2006 releases, but Benedikt H. Hermannsson's follow-up Kajak goes down a whole lot more smoothly. The absence of English lyrics on the new album is a key reason for the more favourable impression since, even if the new release's lyrical content is less than stellar, only those versed in Hermannsson's native Icelandic tongue will be aware of it.

The tracks were written and composed in a rapid spurt, with the eleven musicians laying down the album's thirteen ‘big band folk' songs in a mere four days. That energy translates palpably to the playing, as waves of guitars, drums, horns, and glockenspiels animate the songs with rambunctious swing. Hermannsson often slows the momentum by alternating instrumental passages with naked vocal and acoustic guitar balladry (“Aldrei,” for instance, where a lovely fireside lullaby segues into a funereal band section, and “Brekkan” which alternates horn and drum riffing with a slowly lilting waltz episode). The rustic naturalism of his singing is nicely spotlighted on restrained ballad settings like the love song “Regngalsinn.” The album's not entirely bucolic, though, with “Ég á bát” escalating to a squalling roar, the manic “Sól á heyhóla” adding punk intensity, and “Mónakó” gleefully romping in 5/4 time.

There's still an occasional cloying taint of ‘high-school concert band' playing to the album (the robust parts in the instrumental overture “Skvavars”) but there's an even stronger hint of Sigur Rós in the material to override it (the album was recorded over four days at Sigur Rós's studio Sundlaugin). Hermannsson also seemingly absorbed some of the group's talent for melody; “Snjórjljóssnjór,” for example, couples a gentle swoon with a rising Sigur Rós motif, though the best moment here is probably “Sorgartár,” a song about life by the sea, where a lovely vocal melody blends with a swelling instrumental upsurge that strongly suggests an ocean's wave.

January 2007