Of Monsters and Men is my favorite band out of Iceland since Björk’s original group, the Sugarcubes.
All right … Of Monsters and Men is the only Icelandic band I’ve heard since the Sugarcubes. But the overnight (not!) success of their indie-alternative hit “Little Talks” – unlike last year’s plume of ash from the Grímsvötn volcano – is a breath of Nordic fresh air.
As my family has long known and blog readers are just learning, I take a detour every couple of years, like clockwork, into pop music criticism. I can’t help myself. Lord knows, it’s not because I know what I’m talking about. But, hey, anyone can play this game. One of my favorite lines is from Pete Hamill’s liner notes for Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks: “Totalitarian art tells you how to feel. Dylan feels, and invites you to join him.” (Don’t sue me: both the vinyl and its cardboard cover are in cold storage, and I may be paraphrasing.)
If you’re interested in how Of Monsters and Men broke through commercially, see their slide presentation at http://www.slideshare.net/bjorgviningi/how-an-unknown-icelandic-band-became-a-huge-success-in-the-us-without-even-visiting. In a nutshell, it involves a self-made video of a live performance of “Little Talks,” which got picked up by a radio station in Seattle in the fall of 2010 and inexorably went viral. All of us should be inspired by this model of global culture, even while we’re forced to admit that it remains tethered to the hegemony of the English language. More on this last point in a bit.
Here are my four main observations on the “Of Monsters” phenomenon:
– I’ve heard various live versions of “Little Talks” and they all nail it. I’m referring not to note-for-note fidelity, but to overall clarity of tone, and rhythmic energy and coherence. Indeed, I think they trump the official recorded version itself. This bespeaks a high level of musicianship and is a welcome antidote to the gauzy and largely talent-free “meme” school of pop craft. Yes, I’m looking at you, Lana Del Rey.
– Nanna Bryndis Hilmarsdottir’s lead vocals mesmerize. It takes a special gift to make dark lyrics lilt, and somehow she imbues them with a folkish huskiness that also conveys fragility. In “Little Talks,” Hilmarsdottir harmonizes and counterpoints amiably with another singer-guitarist, Ragnar Porhallsson. And the whole group gives off an egalitarian vibe. But their upcoming American tour and success will likely challenge that, since Himarsdottir is an obvious emerging solo star.
– The arrangement builds around accordion lines. How a band from a frozen tundra came to incorporate Zydeco into its sound is one of the enduring mysteries.
– Finally, those lyrics. Europop (once well defined as “songs written in English, by people who don’t speak English, for the consumption of people who don’t understand English”) can be goofy, if charming, from the likes of ABBA. But the Of Monsters songwriters (Hilmarsdottir and Porhallsson, presumably – I can’t find credits) show that a little unfamiliarity can be transcendent. The following word combination simply could not have been composed by someone for whom English was the first language:
‘Cause though the truth may vary
this ship will carry
our bodies safe to shore
And now, perhaps to everyone’s relief, I bring this post to shore – safe or otherwise. Back to the other crap.