By Ramon Ramirez
Editor’s note: This article was originally published June 4, 2013
Of Monsters and Men isn’t quite there yet.
Through an efficient, 15-song set Monday at Stubb’s, the youthful Icelandic folk rockers spanned their nascent discography while adding a Yeah Yeah Yeahs cover and an unreleased track, "Beneath My Bed," for good measure. It was an hour of work.
After a dignified, pleasant opening batch of tunes from Canadian indie rockers Half Moon Run—a band that tiptoed around the headliner’s backline like elves—Of Monsters and Men, seven deep, hit the stage in their sharpest tiny hats and vests. They came out to a chorus of "la la las" as white paper lanterns took turns coming on and off like stop lights. White bulbs littered the big Stubb’s canvas like fireflies. Set and album opener "Dirty Paws" hummed along with its oddball narrative about forest creatures that waged war against evil queens. An enthusiastic crowd—I saw lots of cheerful students and NPR dads—sung along to lyrics like, "the dragonfly ran away, but it came back with a story to stay." The band—24-year-old singer Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir, singer and lead fedora rocker Ragnar Þórhallsson, guitarist Brynjar Leifsson, drummer Arnar Rósenkranz Hilmarsson, bassist Kristján Páll Kristjánsson (two multi-instrumentalists join them on tour)—has spent the past two years strolling through high profile pop stages. Stateside, this meant a spring "Saturday Night Live" appearance and a South By Southwest 2012 showcase, also at Stubb’s.
Music runs through Hilmarsdóttir, a coffeehouse circuit veteran in her hometown of Garður, Iceland (population: 1400). Of Monsters and Men came together when she filled out her sound with more members to compete in a battle of the bands, and her auteur-ship keeps themes upbeat and sugary. On stage in a black sundress and jacket, she played the pixie—shaking hands with the air and saying "pleased to meet you" to gathered Austinites. You half-expected the hipster host to invite us over for a game of Cards Against Humanity.
Hilmarsson, in a black v-neck shirt, vest, and headband, played pep rally leader—I counted six instances during which the drummer stood up from his kit, kept the bass drum kicking, and started crowd clap-alongs through extended breakdowns. Their banter was optimistic and endearing, as if the band was still auditioning and eager to please. "We’d love to play you a love song," Hilmarsdóttir said just before "Love Love Love." Um, sure. Later it was joyous pride when they told us that "King and Lionheart" is "our second single."
Þórhallsson sings lead on "Mountain Sound," and the driving toe-tapper serves as an uptempo linchpin for a band that is still learning the post-Mumford art of taking acoustics to arenas. For now all of the earnest balladry amounts to a soft oeuvre and, at Stubb’s, a great deal of side chatter. The band makes no bones about their music’s fortunate timing in interviews. But it’s deeper than the fact that chant-fueled folk revivalism is a hot sound, or that Arcade Fire won a Best Album Grammy for their baroque pop crescendos. Of Monsters and Men represent a new era and a second life for this cycle of indie pop because they are a class younger than contemporaries like Edward Sharpe and The Lumineers. Whereas Mumford & Sons took inspiration from the "O Brother Where Art Thou?" soundtrack and delved into Americana, Of Monsters and Men came up in a connected world of international indie pop. The borrowed swagger culminates with their big hit "Little Talks," an accordion-led whaler anthem fit for a Long John Silver’s. The band dusted it off 45 minutes into the set and everybody loved it.
To their credit, they didn’t fall into the one-hit wonder trap of playing the big number last, or even worse, playing it twice. "Six Weeks" closed the set and played like a six-minute gem with faster strumming, flickering lanterns. The track is about struggling with inner demons and spotlights Hilmarsdóttir’s veritable singing chops—turns out she’s good and doesn’t need to employ that Leslie Feist technique of whispering her takes. "Skeletons," the Yeah Yeah Yeahs cover and encore, showed that Hilmarsdóttir isn’t in the same building as Karen O. But that’s ok, she’s still learning.