Review by John Bush
Mum's first album for Fat Cat -- by no coincidence, the label that also broke fellow Icelanders Sigur Ros -- has all the majestic synths, crackly drum machine percussion, sampled silence, and crystalline vocals you'd expect from the country that produced Bjork and Sigur Ros, though with less focus on digital sound than the former and less reliance on drama than the latter. Mum is very interested in the music of sound, but Finally We Are No One never sounds like a difficult record; if it's not the instruments sounding naive or folksy (in good ways), the lisping, childlike vocals are bound to prompt adjectives like adorable and precious. "Green Grass of Tunnel" has the sweet melancholia, coloring-book hip-hop, and slowly shifting chords of poptronica producers like isan or Boards of Canada, and also trades on the wide-eyed fairy-tale qualities of Bjork. Apart from the hefty title, "Don't Be Afraid, You Have Just Got Your Eyes Closed" approaches mainstream appeal -- briefly, and at several different times -- with a nice dance beat gradually replaced by a beatbox breakdown, toy xylophone, and a nice trumpet melody. Several individual passages of songs strike an evocative chord, like the string quartet, piano, warm synthesizers, and percussion rumblings of "K/Half Noise" combining to recall the quieter portions of Tortoise's landmark "Djed."
Finally We Are No One
[Fat Cat; 2002]
The buzz around Mum began early in 2001, and the word on the street was that another Icelandic band was making music as pretty and epic as Sigur Ros. Those tuning into the hype were surprised when they finally heard Yesterday Was Dramatic, Today Is Okay. On their debut album, Mum sounded like a melodic laptop outfit with a curiosity about acoustic instruments. Nothing about the record suggested the word "band." Sure, there were some "la-la" vocals here and there, a good amount of accordion and the occasional guitar, but Bogdan Raczynski's last record had all those qualities in equal measure and he never lost his IDM identity. However Mum were presented, there was no mistaking the quality of the music.
With their second full-length album Finally We Are No One, Mum definitely sounds like a 'band', in the traditional sense of the word. Almost half the tracks feature proper vocals singing songs; the horns, strings and accordion are even more evident; and the modular synthesizer patches have been relegated to the background. The band continues to build its rhythmic foundation around glitch-inspired beats, but the sound surrounding the clicks and pops is more conventionally musical. How you feel about this new development will depend on which path you hoped Mum would follow. If the marching voices that emerged at the tail end of "There Is a Small Number of Things" were what moved you, then you'll find Finally We Are No One very much to your liking. If, on the other hand, you found the sprightly beat programming and warm synth chords of "I'm 9 Today" and "Awake on a Train" to be the foundation of what made Yesterday Was Dramatic so great, you'll find yourself enjoying this one a little less.
To my ears, the closer Mum gets to conventional song structures, the less appealing the band is. At its heart, Mum is not bestowed with the gift of melody, and too many of the tunes here come across as simplistic and trite. "We Have a Map of the Piano" has the same lead line as the familiar keyboard exercise "Heart and Soul" (I'm not suggesting they stole the melody-- I doubt the band has even heard it-- but I can't think of anything else when I listen to this track). While it adds to the innocent cast of the tune, it does little to encourage repeat plays. "Don't Be Afraid, You Have Just Got Your Eyes Closed" and the first half of "K/Half Noise" are similarly powered by the kind of inane four-note melody a toddler might dream up.
With all that out of the way, the fact remains that this is still a good album, if not a great one. Despite containing a few tunes that grate with their simple-minded sweetness, a handful of others are excellent. Released earlier as a single, "Green Grass of Tunnel" is far and away their best stab at conventional songwriting, with a whimsical melody appropriate to the music-box backing and a nice mix of organ, accordions, and strings. The title track, an instrumental, also displays a sense of balance, as it moves from dark, crunching sounds in its first third to a nice melody doubled on violin and trumpet, before returning to its murky resting place amid gurgles of distortion at the end. The lengthy closer "The Land Between Solar Systems" is pretty great, building from near silence to a low-grade fever pitch, unfolding like an epic Quickspace tune in extreme slow motion.
I understand that the child's-view angle is a large part of Mum's appeal, and I don't mean to discount this approach to music-- as a devoted fan of Nobukazu Takemura, I'd be a hypocrite to argue against it. But something's missing from Mum's relentless pursuit of beauty and innocence: a sense of struggle. They're almost too good at making simple, pretty music at this point, and the tracks content to pursue these qualities alone come across as fluffy. With the digital aspect of the sound played down in favor of uncomplicated acoustic melodies, Mum seems just a bit less substantial.
-Mark Richard-San, May 21, 2002