Benni Hemm Hemm may not be in Robert Pollard territory yet, but the Icelandic orchestral pop group is off to a prolific start. Last year’s self-titled release came to America last fall, and the Benni is back with another symphonic and intricate album that fuses whispered lullabies with grandiose swells.
If nothing else, the twenty-six-year-old Hemm Hemm (or Benedik H. Hermannson to his mother) is an uncommonly precocious organizational wizard. Recorded in four days at Sundlaugin, the famed swimming-pool studio favorite by Iceland rock gods Sigur Ros, the arrangements feature eleven musicians playing such instruments as trumpets, glockenspiel, and kettle drums. After all that’s transpired in indie-pop the last few years, it’s amazing that a glockenspiel can still provide the simple pleasures it does in a song like “Hol a Hey Hola”
Intricate orchestration aside, Benni Hemm Hemm does wonders with those most conventional of folk-rock instruments: acoustic guitars. Mellifluous picking patterns dance and swirl over the plaintive horn lines of “Skavars,” a sashaying instrumental goose-bump raiser that sets the tone for the album. Like much of the music coming from Iceland, Hemm Hemm favors drawn-out dynamic shifts, raising from whisper-quiet to high-timbre tumult.
Benni Hemm Hemm’s vocals are his only limitation. His narrow range sounds particularly flat when he’s unaccompanied by the lush instrumentation of the more upbeat numbers. It’s unclear whether he’s aware of using his colorless singing as a stylistic choice, such as when the quiet, vocal-centric “Snjor Ljos Snjor” creates a dull valley before a quick segue into the jumpy, upbeat “Sorgarta.”
Kajak is a rich, impressive effort from a young musician, and although it lacks a little of the ramshackle glee that made the self-titled debut so much fun, this is an accomplished artist who will be fun to follow.