Benni Hemm Hemm Murta St. Calunga

[Kimi; 2009]

Rating: 2.5/5

Styles: folk rock
Others: Neutral Milk Hotel, Danielson

Benedikt Hermannsson is at the helm of supersized Icelandic brass-rock band Benni Hemm Hemm. Unlike 2007’s weighty Kajak, Murta St. Calunga is often pretty or cute and occasionally sung in English. It's befitting too: the lyrics “We’re whaling in the North Atlantic,” the refrain of the album’s second track, means a lot more, and to a wider audience, when not in Icelandic. At first, it resembles a Raffi song, strummed slowly and sweetly, as if patiently waiting for a bumbling accompaniment of children to catch up, until Benni Hemm Hemm’s bold, energetic orchestration — composed mostly of brass instruments, an acoustic guitar, and a piano — makes sure to briefly interrupt the piece. This approach is found all over the band’s previous work, where beautiful, soothing guitar passages become suddenly, and pleasantly, annihilated by the wind team.

This is so common, in fact, that the penultimate track — a cover of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain” — has us waiting and waiting for that brass explosion to come, but shockingly, all we get is a little atmospheric harmonizing with the vocals and guitar. In fact, Murta on the whole is distinctly quieter and more uplifting than either Kajak or the band’s eponymous debut. A few new adventures have taken hold; first track “Beethoven Í Kaupmann” is a boisterous but controlled old country song, where the guitars prove they can pull the weight of the brass section, while “Velðiljóð” harks back to the band’s penchant for surprising, jerky time signatures and thick, all-systems-go harmonies.

What the previous albums often lacked was any sense of a settlement or resting space within each song. There were no slow buildups, gradual differentiations of instruments, or familiar flits back and forth between verse and chorus. Older tracks like Kajak’s “Ég á bát” would have nice things going before throwing it all out in under four minutes and moving on to the next order of business. Those extended, crazy guitar roars and shrieks were a great trip that ended too soon, in spite of a tempo that seemed to want to behold the moment for as long as it could. Here, “Avían Í Afganistan” charts new territory, with a little more air and coolness to the warm, cozy atmosphere of many of the band’s songs. It builds patiently yet energetically and is enveloped by the next track’s simple acoustic guitar strums.

All of Benni Hemm Hemm’s tricks come together on the neatly knitted “Murta & El Paso”; strings sneak in to provide an anchor of bright, warm sound, as the layers thicken to include, inevitably, the brass and vocals, which travel calmly up and down the scale in a nice, secure, resolved harmony. Although it’s assonant and pretty, it suffers from the same flaws as other tracks: it’s more of a fleeting idea than an all-out, ball-busting composition. Listening to Murta St. Calunga twice feels like listening to it once. But among all the lovely sameness, there are a few growers.

1. Beethoven Í Kaupmann
2. Whaling In The North Atlantic
3. Velðiljóð
4. Avían Í Afganistan
5. Allt Sem
6. Fjalla-Eyvindur
7. Riotmand
8. Lokalagið
9. Murta & El Paso
10. Early Morning Rain
11. Beethoven Í Brasilíu

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