I am slowing turning Scandinavian, one pop song at a time. The latest stage in my transformation crept up on me during a recent trip to Iceland, in which Icelandair greeted me with more than a dozen Icelandic pop CDs to listen to on the trip, followed by some choice discoveries in record stores that called Reykjavic home.
Until a few years ago, the only Icelandic musician I knew anything about was Björk Guðmundsdóttir, in all three of her manifestations: as singer for the anarcho-postpunk band K.U.K.L., then with the pop-disco Sugarcubes, and finally, not so simply, as Björk. She remains the lodestar of Icelandic pop: her CDs dominate the local record stores, she writes blurbs on best-selling books, and most bands can’t help but being influenced by one of the many genres she’s explored in her long career. Three years ago I added to my list of Icelandic bands the indie popsters FM Belfast, who are set to release their third CD later this year, and they remain one of my favorite pop (not just Icelandic) bands to this day. I should also have known about Of Monsters and Men, whose debut CD “My Head is an Animal” is well-enough known stateside, but better late than never…
After hitting themselves over the head with a titanic financial disaster five years ago, it’s perhaps not surprising that Icelanders are scurrying to music for some solace: they’re certainly no longer busy making unhealthy amounts of money, and—to judge from a cool book I picked up called Dreamland: A Self-Help Manual for a Frightened Nation, by Andri Snaer Magnason (forward by Björk, of course), at least some of them are interested in reflecting on what went wrong. Not that much of the music being produced is of a political bent: all the clubs in Reykjavik showcase DJ This and DJ That, and the bands range relatively narrowly between dance and folk-pop. But they do seem to have some time on their hands, and they’re using it to create a surprising amount of great music—especially considering that the population of Iceland is roughly the same as Lincoln, Nebraska or Kalamazoo, Michigan (well… the “metropolitan areas”), and that Reykjavik feels like a very small national capital. Granted, Kalamazoo doesn’t quite possess Iceland’s tax base, even post-2009—and certainly doesn’t own an airline that provides all its passengers with free home-grown music.
The first record I sampled on the Icelandair flight was “Rokk í Reykjavík,” which I later found out accompanied a TV documentary on Icelandic rock, ca 1981. It included songs by two bands I had long since forgotten about: Purrkur Pillnikk (which means “Sleepy Chess-Player”), and Q4U. Purrkur Pillnikk‘s brilliant 2-minute “Surprise” (from their only English-language EP, “No Time to Think”) was once one of my favorite songs, and after hearing the Icelandic version of that song on “Rokk í Reykjavík” (called “Ovaent”) I was pleased to find a compilation of their final three records (it’s also on itunes), and tracked down much of their first LP later on youtube. They were something like a Scandinavian version of The Minutemen, if you can imagine that: smart lyrics (those I could understand), herky-jerky rhythms, and well-timed shouts. Q4U (pictured above) predated K.U.K.L. by a couple of years, and were a much more listenable version of what K.U.K.L. tried to do: sassy, edgy feminist pop akin to Essential Logic or Kleenex. Their debut LP, “Q1”, has been reissued with extra trimmings and is easy to find online.
Back to the present: pop bands in Iceland, like in many other small countries, can be divided between those who sing in English vs. in their native language. The best in the first camp are FM Belfast and Of Monsters of Men, both of whom seem to have an underwear fixation: one of my favorite songs by FM Belfast is “Underwear,” which complains of nothing to do in Iceland (leading to the obviously painful denouement: see the video below). And the debut CD by Of Monsters and Men—or rather the Icelandic version—features a lineup of fit Icelandic men from perhaps seventy years ago, garbed either in underwear or antique swimming trunks (the US release shows a boy running on a beach -- but it does include an extra song). BVDs aside, both bands feature a similar unbeatable formula: lilting girl-boy melodies that dive about like puffins catching their daily meal, interesting instrumentation, and memorable lyrics. FM Belfast are more electronic, especially on their new song “We Are Faster Than You” (so far only available on a very good compilation called “This is Icelandic Indie Music,” which you can order here). Of Monsters and Men are more “folk,” in the way Mumford and Sons are folk: trumpets blare now and then, singing sometimes gives way to whistling, and orchestration occasionally happens. Less consistently good, but occasionally sparkling, in the English-language camp, are Tilbury (start with “Tenderloin” on their 2012 CD “Exorcise”) and Seabear, who add some fiddle to their folk-pop mix.
Harder to find, but worth seeking out, are artists like Ensimi and Ásgeir Trusti, who mainly sing in Icelandic (so I can’t vouch for their lyrics). Ensimi has been around for fifteen years at least, and they’ve evolved from loud shoe-gazey melodies on “Kafbátamúsík” (1998) to quieter mirrors of sound on 2010’s “Gaeludyr.” Ásgeir Trusti, branded as “new artist of the year” in all the Reykjavik record shops, soothes savage breasts and then some on his brilliant debut CD, “Dýrð í Dauðaþögn.” Attentive readers of this blog may recall the praise I heaped on the Danish band The Rumour Said Fire: all such encomiums apply to Ásgeir Trusti, who hums his lyrics in a softly-swooping tenor voice over surprisingly intricate guitar work and the occasional horn or piano part. Here’s a taste from Youtube, which actually includes a hum or two, and while you’re listening to it please try not to blame the Danes too much for their centuries of oppressing Iceland. You should be able to order it (the CD, not Danish oppression) here.
It’s not as if there are deep reserves of talent swelling up beneath the handful of bands discussed herein, although I haven’t quite exhausted the list of Iceland music that caught my ear. Then again (with no offense intended toward those two cities), how many great bands can you name from Lincoln or Kalamazoo?
Featured video: FM Belfast, "Underwear" (from their debut CD "How to Make Friends", 2008)