Múm (rhymes with “moon”) is an Icelandic collective that blends folk and electronic music, but the result is surprisingly conventional. Sing Along to Songs You Don’t Know, ostensibly written largely in response to political unrest in Iceland, is decidedly apolitical, so mild throughout that it risks no offense as its pleasant escapism sidesteps the clamor of competing interests.
The quirky naïveté of the album title comes through more strongly on the superior first half of the album than on the second, which veers into string-laden melodrama. “Sing Along,” whose lyrics contain the album title, warns about the regret of things not done (“You never know until you sing along”) and makes it clear that the album title is meant to be taken as an imperative. It fulfills this collaborative, come-one-come-all ethos by combining acoustic guitars and handclaps with drum machines and stray video-game noises. Staccato vocals and offbeat but optimistic lyrics (“You are so beautiful to us/ We want to keep you as our pets”) round out a song that is actually worth singing along to. “Sing Along” is matched only by “The Smell of Today Is Sweet like Breast Milk in the Wind.” Built on a techno beat and an electronic approximation of a cowbell, the restless tempo changes and Múm’s eclectic instrumentation make the song pleasantly unpredictable, which is exactly the sensation that such eclecticism should produce.
Yet if those two songs sustain the freewheeling ethos of the album, most of the rest reminded me of listening to Architecture in Helsinki, when every other song had about twenty seconds I loved before it changed to something pedestrian. “If I Were a Fish” opens the album gently and builds to an inclusive and amateurish noise as a variety of instruments make their casual entrance — handclaps, bass drum, and horns all make their blase contribution — but that quickly recedes and is over just as soon as you’ve had a chance to appreciate it.
Any hopes that Múm will deliver on the hints of joyful noise are laid to rest by “Húllabbalabbalúú.” An Icelandic word, the English-singing Múm nevertheless surely know it calls to mind “hullabaloo”; unfortunately the sound never reaches anything meriting the name. The repetitive lyrics give “Húllabbalabbalúú” the potential to be a real sing-along, and anticipation rises as the music crescendos but then stops short of any resolution climax worthy of the buildup, making the song an extended exercise in coitus interruptus.
Despite the lack of climax, the album’s energy is sapped and the remaining songs traffic in whispered vocals, delicate piano, and strings that evoke forests shrouded in mist, and we never find our way back to the suggestions of free-for-all sing-alongs, in which we may find a glimmer of political meaning.
Perhaps it would be better if Múm didn’t try to sing along to songs they didn’t know. While their charm lies in the way genres, instruments, and musicians (nine performers on some tracks) are optimistically thrown together, there’s as much confusion as serendipity here. There’s not a truly objectionable moment on the album, but neither are there many memorable ones, making it an album as difficult to genuinely like as to dislike.