Múm: Summer Make Good

Years ago when I purchased The Beach Boys' Holland, the album came with an added EP titled Mount Vernon and Fairway (A Fairy Tale), Brian Wilson's primary contribution to the 1973 release. Of course, during this period Brian was essentially MIA (although he did manage to co-write two of the album's better songs “Sail On Sailor” and “Funky Pretty”) so the EP held special significance for die-hard fans. In the story recited by Brian, a young prince, having found a Magic Transistor Radio stored in his castle's attic, finds himself bewitched by its ethereal sounds, its music “like nothing he had ever heard before,” faint, glorious transmissions from some foreign land. In the years since, I would amuse myself on occasion by reflecting upon what group's music might best fit such transcendental criteria. Not surprisingly, I rarely came up with a satisfying choice until, that is, three years ago with the appearance of Múm's Yesterday Was Dramatic-Today Is OK. The Icelandic quartet's music sounded completely foreign and yet familiar too, the group's magical and often poignant music aptly instantiating the term sui generis. To my delightful surprise, the magic continued with the follow-up Finally We Are No One, if anything an even more majestic collection.

Which brings us, finally, to Summer Make Good, the group's latest FatCat full-length. Apparently the album was written and recorded in two remote lighthouses surrounded by open seas and rugged terrain at two isolated Iceland sites. Most of the tracks were written in a Galtarviti lighthouse and were then recorded over seven weeks at a light-keeper's home near another lighthouse in Gardskagatá. Such evocative, windswept locales seem to have imprinted themselves upon the music which retains their atmospheric presence. (So isolated were they at Galtarviti that communicating with the outside world involved a three-hour mountain climb to get a mobile reception, and sea-crossings were required to obtain provisions.) For this album, Múm desired a more organic feel, one less reliant on digital trickery. Instead of recording into and manipulating sounds on computer, the group ran them through vintage amps and old gramophone speakers, thereby giving the recording a natural depth and warmth. One thus hears layers of vinyl crackle and hiss as emblematic of the setting, especially when augmented by album interludes (like the creaking opener “Hú Hviss-A Ship”) where sounds of water and wind are audible. The music becomes a dense, intricate concoction enriched by electronic elements, melodica, glockenspiel, accordion, trumpet, viola, pump organ, and banjo.

Aside from background details, however, the key question remains: Does Summer Make Good maintain the peak established by its predecessors? In a word, no, but that doesn't mean it's not good because it is; it's just not quite as magical as the others. Another key difference is that the group's sound has lost the joie de vivre one hears so vividly on Yesterday Was Dramatic-Today Is OK which strikes a near-perfect balance between melancholy and joy. Summer Make Good is predominantly melancholy, with jubilant moments appearing rarely if at all, and, depending on one's preference, that's a good (or not-so-good) thing. The music retains its intimate feel, with its signature little-girl voices prominently featured to often lovely effect, as on the yearningly beautiful “Oh, How The Boat Drifts.”' The album registers as more of a suite as opposed to a set of individual songs, an impression no doubt bolstered by the hazy ambiance that persists throughout, and the music is as sumptuous and hypnotic as in the past. And yet, unlike before, only a handful of tracks stands out beyond the aforementioned “Oh, How The Boat Drifts.” There's the dirge-like “Will The Summer Make Good For All Of Our Sins?” and the opener “‘Weeping Rock, Rock” where a mandolin nicely doubles the vocal line and a violin duets with the singer's “la-la-las” on the coda. Arguably the strongest track, the gorgeous accordion melodies and delicate vocals of “The Ghosts You Draw On My Back” make it a match for Finally We Are No One's “Green Grass of Tunnel” and “The Land Between Solar Systems.” Still, the peaks are fewer this time, and, as a result, the recording seems less consequential. In essence, Summer Make Good offers evidence that the band's sound is still magical, just less potent than before.

March 2004