I was once a devoted fan of múm. Years ago you’d find me paying silly amounts to get my hands on a rare CD by the Iceland natives, or trudging through thick blocks of Icelandic text on obscure websites just to understand that bit more about the band’s doings. But now I feel in no way inclined to neither hand over money for any of their recent releases nor even keep track of their touring schedule. Sure, I still listen – especially to the older stuff, as it’s timeless and some of my favourite music ever. And should a new release from the band be announced I’ll listen to that too, but mostly out of hope: hope that the band will wander back to those days when they created a seamless patchwork of wonderful melodies, acoustic instrumentation, textural electronica, and coy childish enthusiasm.
Thus, the announcement that the band were set to release Early Birds -a compilation of tracks that predated their exemplary debut album Yesterday Was Dramatic, Today Is Ok – should have roused me out of my sleep of disinterest. And I suppose it did – until I saw that the tracklisting consisted mainly of song’s I’d already heard. Fans of múm who have sought out their catalogue of unreleased songs have likely come across and downloaded the Friends of The Random Summer compilation, which collects b-sides, radio sessions, and rare unreleased tracks from the band’s career over three discs. And in true múm fashion, you can even print out the artwork and construct CD covers yourself.
Still, not everyone who listened to múm has been a fanatic, and for the vast majority, this will all be new stuff – albeit old new stuff. If anything, Early Birds paints a picture of how the band were operating before they got around to releasing their debut, showing that they were just as interested in being silly and experimental as they are today. Take opening track “Bak Þitt Er Sem Rennibraut,” which offers sprightly melodies infused with clattering drum machines and sounds pretty run of the mill pre-millennia múm; a pleasant if not unobtrusive welcome to their world. Five tracks later, though, they’re offering another version of the song (the “Bústadavegur Er Fáviti Megamix Eftir Músíkvat” version) which manages to turn an electronic track into something unabashedly “rock-electronic”, complete with 8-bit synths and a shameless guitar soloing coda. It suggests that perhaps múm were never a band with grand gestures or long term plans in mind, but instead wanted to explore a found sound, record it, and then move on to the next thing.
The variety of tracks here certainly helps back up that argument, going from synths that sound like the groans of mythical creatures from children’s books (“Gingúrt”) to peaceful and gentle explorations of melody (“0,000Orð”). The compilation actually splits itself into two, beginning with the more lively, weird and wonderful tracks, and coming to a close on slower and strangely contemplative numbers. There are some tracks that deserve a listen: “Hufeland” manages to captures the exact kind of sound between Yesterday Was Dramatic and follow-up Finally We Are No One, hitting on a melody that sounds evocative and troubled. The previously unreleased “Hvernig Á A? Sara Vini Sína” could well be the band’s first vocal track, and it’s amazing how friendly and simple it is, without sounding grating. And “Lalalala Blái Hnötturinn” is just sublime, with its glimmering toybox twinkles and trickling backdrop, and should be considering essential listening for any fan of the band.
Tracks like “Múm Spilar La La La” and “Enginn Vildi Hlusta Á Fiðlunginn, Því Strengir Hans Vóru Slitnir – Getiði Ekki Verið Góð Við Mömmu Okkar?”, on the other hand, don’t do much more than explore sparse instrumental ambience. While they might be full of sonic detail – which the band has always been great at capturing – they lull aimlessly; even the latter track, which is Yesterday Was Dramatic cut “The Ballad of the Broken String” is its original form, offers no reason to return, and exists merely as a curiosity.
There will be people who like this, but for the múm fan already acquainted with the band’s past, there’s not a great deal to excite. The pair of unreleased tracks are pleasant, and the inclusion of two cuts from the band’s largely forgotten Blái Hnötturinn soundtrack are definitely welcome, as they deserve more attention. Other than that, fans might seek to pick and choose their favourite cuts here and combine them with the few good tracks the band has released from their past couple of albums, creating their compilation, or even their own múm retrospective. The saddest thing about Early Birds, though, is that it’s a reminder of how great múm were at creating electronic music; it’s a stark contrast to albums they’re making fourteen years on (unless the release of Early Birds is set to mark a return to the band’s earlier style, which I mournfully doubt is the case). Again it drives home that idea of how the band were merely living in the moment, playing with one sound before moving on the next thing that caught their attention. If that’s how it’s to be done, then múm are band worth living in the past with.