This article also appears on Ground Control
For Iceland’s Of Monsters And Men, there was a very small amount of time between winning a battle of the bands competition (Iceland’s Músiktilraunir) and capturing international attention. First formed in 2010 as a duo between Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir and Ragnar “Raggi” Þórhallsson, the band had expanded to include four other members and produced a number one hit in their home country within a year. That hit, “Little Talks,” became the lead single on the Reykjavík band’s full-length stateside debut, My Head Is An Animal.
With the resurgence of pop-folk led by the likes of Mumford & Sons, Edward Sharpe And The Magnetic Zeroes, and The Head And The Heart, it seems Of Monsters And Men’s success is owed to being in the right place at the right time – at least in some part. My Head Is An Animal trades on folk elements, but gives off a pop sheen; it’s full of whimsical and earthy lyrics delivered by traded male/female vocals, acoustic guitar, and tambourine-backed shouts of “hey!”
The album’s opening track, “Dirty Paws” plays like a fable from Aesop, it’s lyrics mentioning forests, queen bees, and furry friends, backed by the chanting of “lalala”s. Natural elements – waterfalls, seagulls, mountains – pop up in much of the first half of the album, while the second half seems to focus on songs of love and romance.
The album may be at its most exciting when its pace is turned up. On “Mountain Sound” the vocals are rousing – all the band’s members chime in – and the tone upbeat, making it feel a little like Givers’ “Saw You First.” “Six Weeks” opens with a chant and a marching beat, its pace quickens half-way through to strongly echo Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up.” With its oddly melancholy lyrics – “alone / I fight these animals / alone / until I get home” – and different song structure, “Six Weeks” may be the most interesting track on the album.
But of course, there’s “Little Talks.” Its forlorn, nostalgic quality, punctuated by notes from a happy trumpet makes the song stand out, and singers Hilmarsdóttir and Þórhallsson are at their best when singing together in the song’s bridge. Their harmonies together are more noticeable here than in any other place on the album, though they share some nice moments on the tinkly and hypnotic “Yellow Light” and the alternately subdued and exuberant “Lakehouse.” Þórhallsson can sometimes sound like Colin Meloy, which he does most notably on “Sloom” and, when he's singing story-driven lyrics, it’s easy to see the case for The Decembrists comparisons.
My Head Is An Animal is not an undeniably exceptional record, but it does give Of Monsters And Men a nice entrance into the scene. Looking ahead, the challenge for the band seems like it will lie in creating songs which don’t just sound like Arcade Fire/Decembrists/Edward Sharpe songs, but songs that truly sound like Of Monsters And Men.