On any given night in our fair city, there's a bevy of bands playing sold out shows. They've got the buzz...the blogs, a few radio stations, some premiere media outlets and all of those early adopters that come with it on their side. It's enough, at first, until it's not and after that, it's up to an unknown set of intangibles to guide an artist from niche enthusiasm to commercial success. Some bands have them. Most do not.
Only two days removed from the North American release of their debut album My Head Is An Animal, and two weeks into their first ever US tour, Icelandic sextet Of Monsters and Men made their NYC premiere at The Music Hall of Williamsburg, with all of the mighty hype machine's pistons pumping in their favor. But is there something else happening here? Some none-too-common breeze billowing through their sails, guiding the band into the commercial promise land? The band's cool and confident performance would suggest something so.
This past Thursday evening-- welcomed by both a rapturous audience and an insanely heavyweight production team from YouTube-- the band performed with an ecstatic spirit. Singers Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir and Ragnar "Raggi" Pórhallsson are the fresh faces of the group and their voices provide OMAM's most noble feature. There's a breathy, syncopated quality to Hilmarsdóttir vocals; the perfect counterpoint to Pórhallsson's ripple-less lullaby lungs. It's a bit like imaging Feist and David Grey sharing healthy bouts of back and forth and timely, harmonic pairings on stage. The pair is also pretty charming between the songs as well, welcoming the "people of YouTube" and chuckling over an unfortunate accident involving a beer in the front row.
To be fair, OMAM made it difficult to keep a drink upright over the course of their 70 minute performance (I spilled one too). Drummer Arnar Rósenkranz Hilmarsson (sporting the latest in apothecary fashion) is the band's ever present rally crier, providing kick drum rhythms for the house to set an echo chamber of hand claps too (such as on the evening's quietest number, "Slow and Steady") and leaving his seat time and time again to coax a bit more out of the sold out crowd. Brynjar Leifsson, Kristján Páll Kristjánsson and Árni Gujónsson round out the sound, creating panoramic sonic scenes in bass, guitar, keys, accordions, and trumpets, all perfectly ebbing and flowing with Hilmarsdóttir and Pórhallsson's tender lines of verse. Those verses pave the way for dramatic build-ups to lofty precipices, upon which perch the bombastic sing-alongs. It's straightforward, joyous, and invigorating; a change of pace from the weirder, more experimental habits of some their wider-known countrymen. I can't fathom Bjork giving the kind of lyrical queues OMAM offered on "Mountain Sound. " Sigur Ros is too moody and ethereal to maximize joy the way set closer "Six Weeks" does.
Oh, and then there's the song. The one there's a good chance you've encountered by now. "Little Talks," like a breezier, half cousin to Arcade Fire's "Wake Up, " is an insanely sticky, folk sing-along that's been stuck on repeat for weeks, forcing friends and co-workers to wonder what on earth it is I've been listening to and where exactly they can find it. It's the song and if you haven't come across it yet it's only a matter of time before you're a part of what could be one of this summer's more ubiquitous musical moments. Not surprisingly, the band's chipper, live rendition met the evening's most enthusiastic response.
If all of this seems a tad crazy for a band that wasn't on anyone's radar six weeks ago, that's probably because it is. But doesn't that always seem to be the case with Iceland's most well-known exports? It's like the country's music scene serves as some great, pop incubator, raising and nurturing their artists until the perfect moment to let the rest of the world in on the little secret they've been hiding.
And what a secret they've been hiding. Having spent the last couple years road testing their sound (and collecting loads of local accolades along the way) back home, the band seems poised to conquer every stage they will play over the next few months. On Thursday, it was the relatively small Music Hall of Williamsburg. Later this summer? Who knows... But it's not a stretch to imagine Of Monsters and Men following in the footsteps of acts like Mumford and Sons, Foster The People, and Florence and The Machine; bands that were initially powered by the buzz, until that special something else occurred.