It became clear after the release of the predictable if antiseptically lovely disengagement of 2004’s Summer Make Good that the members of Múm were no longer marching in stylistic lockstep. Kristín Valtýsdóttir’s beatific and numinous cooing had begun to straightjacket the band just as much as the misty, water-colored ambience and twinkling electropop generated by fellow cofounders Gunnar Tynes and Örvar Smárason, driving their once innovative sound into formuliac lullabyes and hazy, claustraphobic soundscapes. By 2006, Valtýsdóttir had left the group for greener grass on the other side of the tunnel, and the remainder of Múm was left to ponder its future in the vacuum left by her crystalline, crystallized vocal beauty.
Hence, Múm: Version II.
Go Go Smear the Poison Ivy is in many ways a first album, with Tynes and Smárason twisting and rending the once quintessential Múm sound of hushed childlike awe and thick slow-wave drifts into a shambolic, noisily alive approach — such a rejuvenated about-face from Summer Make Good that it nearly sounds like an entirely new band. Well, perhaps not entirely, because this Múm is still characterized by spectral vocals and eclectic music, but the methods — and feeling — are different. In place of Valtýsdóttir are boy-girl vocalists Mr. Silla and Hildur Guðnadóttir, who each work well on an individual basis but whose dual harmonies (as on the surging, playfully jangling opener, “Blessed Brambles,” or the twitching exuberance of lead single “They Made Frogs Smoke ’Til They Exploded”) intertwine into a honeyed sinew that, though not as haunting as Valtýsdóttir’s, is every bit as alluring over the warm, brassy riptides of live instrumentation, which replaces the stuttered glitch beats. Where they once would have only accented them, horns, harps, and the metronome clatter of volatile percussion all explode throughout the songs. Meanwhile, the vocals bend throughout the music, giddily ducking behind lulling strings and rising trumpets before bursting forth to complete a lyric.
Like an Icelandic version of Low, though, the album is denser, quieter, and more electronic in its second half, becoming a push-and-pull between the soothing, almost post-coital haze of the vocals and the skittering, ringing electronic glimmers of narrowly pounding beats on the avant-pop of songs like “Dancing Behind My Eyelids” and “Schoolsong Misfortune.” It’s also in the album’s B-side where the band seems to run out of steam, padding the back end of the disc with aimless, lackluster instrumentals. Unfortunately, this meandering quietly undermines two late-arrival, gorgeously poignant ballads: “I Was Her Horse,” a New Orleans-style funeral dirge hovering above the Icelandic ice-flows of twinned, wordless vocals and mourning brass; and closer “Winter (What We Never Were At All),” a wistful swath of muted electronica and string laments — a strange, seemingly over-the-shoulder glance at what the band once was through the eyes (and ears) of its new incarnation.
Although Go Go Smear the Poison Ivy has the dizzy invigoration and winning enthusiasm of an excellent first album, it also suffers from a kind of first-disc immaturity, an urge to pack everything in at once and as early as possible, rendering it top-heavy and inconsistent. Despite the instrumental prowess, songwriting ability, and gifted vocal stylings that arc throughout the album, the members of this new Múm have yet to reign in and control the more excessive elements of their burgeoning sound the way they so masterfully did on 2002’s Finally We Are No One, placing Go Go Smear the Poison Ivy closer to the band’s original 2000 debut in that it enthusiastically points the way toward a developing musical statement rather than making one of its own. Yesterday was dramatic, sure, and today is okay. But by the sound of things, tomorrow should be amazing.