BEARD-SCRATCHERS, KEEP OUT!
Hot times with Mum in the city
Empty Bottle, Chicago, 7/18
By the time Mum took the stage at Chicago’s Empty Bottle this past Thursday, the backs of the necks of 300 hipsters were dirty and gritty. And at the Bottle, the only air conditioning you can find is the ice-cold PBR in your hand.
Mum is electronicists Gunnar Orn Tynes and Orvar Poreyjarson Smarason with twin sisters Kristin Anna and Gyda Valtysdottir, whose frail vocal melodies lend the music a diaphanous quality. But no one in Mum is just the singer, or only the keyboardist. Melodica, cello, bass, electric guitar, and a stack of assorted Casios are passed around on stage so much that the mechanics of watching a band live break down, and the viewer is left with only the sound. It’s not possible to simply watch one person perform; chances are, by the next or even the middle of the song, he or she will be on the opposite end of the stage tapping notes into a completely different instrument. The Icelandic quartet has been making gentle waves of the sort previously washed ashore by Sigur Ros. While the two groups share a homeland, Mum’s dynamic isn’t as deliberate as SR; Mum songs behave like pieces of a lyric poem, revealed piece by piece as the night goes on. And you know you like the story, even if you don’t understand some of the words.
Maybe it was the heat. But by the middle of Mum’s set, a videotape loop had formed in my head of something I’ve never seen. As a melodica traced out a simple melody over a slightly unsettling bottom end of bass and electronic rumbles, the reception flickered and popped, eventually forming an image beneath the curtain of static and color bars. Through the electronic haze (and the humidity and stink of sweaty hipster in the club), the images described in “Green Grass of Tunnel” (from the new Finally We Are No One) began to transmit. A swampy tunnel, dripping water, swimming through darkness with your eyes closed. “The song takes place in this valley with a swimming pool and they are sending music to everyone in the world through the tunnel,” Kristin Valtysdottir has said of the song’s theme. And that’s not too far off from the images that formed in the steamy air around my head Thursday night. It’s evocations like this that define Mum’s music, beyond clichés like their being from Iceland, their similarities to other “European”-style electronica, or Kristin and Gyda’s appearance as cover stars for Belle & Sebastian’s Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant.
But the beard-scratchers were definitely in attendance for Mum, evocative atmospherics or not. You know the beard-scratchers. It’s a sub-category of music fan that bleeds into all genres, but seems to gather at electronic music shows featuring skinny, articulated men on stage, keeled over sampling units and PowerBooks. And as the man on stage continues to build his bed of white noise, stopping occasionally to scream nonsense into a microphone, or bring someone from Norway or Germany onstage to blow incomprehensible noise into a series of horns, the beard-scratchers will nod their heads and chat to their friends about their latest “project.” While the beard-scratchers have certainly extended the careers of many the experimental music artist out there, their counterfeit appreciation of music – which is essentially grandstanding to determine who’s the hippest, most “down” cat in the room – can tarnish the work of an electronic-based band that’s actually worth the money. Luckily, it was too hot for beards Thursday night.
Mum’s subdued beats and lilting vocals are an acquired taste. But their mixture of traditional instrumentation with ultra-modern automation and sampling is certainly worth hearing, if only for the transitory moment when it suggests something otherworldly in your head.