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Of Monsters and Men, ‘My Head is an Animal’ (Universal Republic)

SPIN Rating: 6 of 10
Release Date: April 03, 2012
Label: Universal Republic

When Arcade Fire won the Grammy for Album of the Year in 2011, and the Decemberists (briefly) topped the Billboard charts soon thereafter, crazy shit was bound to start flyin’. After years of simple-minded, American Idol-ized fluff, the brainiacs finally felt validated — it was as if the TV accidentally switched from Dumb and Dumber to Tree of Life. But just like when George W. passed the baton to Barack O., and all the dreamers kidded themselves that things would change overnight, it was just new variations on the same old crap rose to the top.

Unlike, say, Train or Nickleback, bands like Arcade Fire and the Decemberists couldn’t be created by committee. They were born in the bedrooms and dorm rooms of outcasts driven to find each other, where liberalism and low rents still exist in the same zip code, and they couldn’t be faked or bought or remotely replicated. Of course, bizzers schooled in the ways of instant, no-brainer hits still feel the need to try.

Enter Reykjavík’s Of Monsters and Men. Solo singer Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir recruited school pal Brynjar Leifsson on electric guitar, then met Ragnar Þórhallsson, who also sings and plays acoustic guitar, and drummer Arnar Rósenkranz Hilmarsson. The combo won Músíktilraunir, Iceland’s annual battle of the bands, and were soon joined by two more baby Vikings on bass and keys. As their breakout single “Little Talks” attests, Nanna and Ragnar together create rare vocal alchemy — alternating boy-girl leads uniting for heartfelt choruses have been rare for pop since the sun set on the Mamas & the Papas. But for a young audience primed on country duets and Glee, their folksy interplay could be manna from the harmony gods. Lord knows we can always use more harmony.

Initially captured in acoustic and semi-acoustic sets by Seattle’s cred-conscious public radio station KEXP, Of Monsters and Men seem organic in ways that overthought English bands and big-city Yanks typically aren’t: In an isolated country relatively free of distractions from practicing your craft, such offhand ease comes more naturally. Even when Brynjar plugs in for some violin-like guitar distortion cribbed from his countrymen in Sigur Rís, he keeps it genteel. And, like so many Nordic acts, they write classic pop melodies like they’re not even trying, with low-key performances that are soulful and unaffected simply because such wistful, high-latitude types are culturally and genetically wired that way.

On their debut album, however, the young sextet suggests an overdetermined, radio-friendly orgy of Arcade Fire, Feist, the Decemberists, and Mumford & Sons. The band and local producer Aron Arnarsson topped Iceland’s charts on their own with “Little Talks,” which added trumpets and French horn to the already gelatinous mix, yet managed to keep it all light and bouncing. But when Universal Music Group, home to both Feist and Mumford, stepped in, bets were hedged. Producer/engineer Jacquire King, who pulled crossover anthem “Use Somebody” out of Kings of Leon, ornaments four of My Head Is an Animal‘s track with the art-pop bombast of Florence + the Machine. Far too much bombast. King’s hand rests heavily on the self-descriptive “Mountain Sound,” which ramps up the faux-Motown beat of “Little Talks” until it evokes Katrina and the Waves’ giddy new-wave ditty “Walking on Sunshine.” It illustrates how far the industry is already willing to artificially freshen these already fresh-faced kids.

My Head Is an Animal is sweetly benign in small doses — particularly if you’re not following closely. Paraphrasing folk tales, the ESL lyrics float by like lullabies, but read more like, “Huh?” Monsters and men alike are far outnumbered by critters — dragonflies, birds, bees, horses, “wolfs,” seagulls, another wolf, lions, more birds, owls, cats, a howling beast, and, of course, those indie-omnipresent bears, all conspiring to situate the band in a fairytale forest fraught with childlike charm but light on comprehensible adult storytelling. Continuous, repeated plays reveal that not only do Of Monsters and Men lack a firm grasp on what they’re writing about, but they also sing as if they don’t understand their own words. It’s Nanna’s tone that’s expressive, not her delivery, which accentuates similar spots in her phrasing and makes the long-haul result too repetitious. Her solo showcase and the album’s most focused, intelligible cut, “Love Love Love” would be an absolute weeper if delivered by, say, Adele. But here, its forbidden desire is underplayed; it’s what she doesn’t say, the protracted pause right after her renunciation of star-crossed longing, that speaks the loudest. She is Scandinavian, after all.

Unlike indie labels, which theoretically nurture developing talents until they’re ready for their closeup, majors rely on fully formed acts to charge out of the starting gate and sprint like mad… until they’re replaced by other hungry newcomers. Seemingly coming out of nowhere, OMAM already fit the bill: Even on their debut, these pirate-rock upstarts have been engineered to sound like they’re filling arenas, although their chemistry suggests far cozier campfires. Will they survive more than few months of international hype? Ask Gotye if he’s feeling the pressure.