Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Beginner's Guide to Mew

Some people who I know love music feel like they are in a bit of a rut when it comes to keeping abreast of current music releases.  When finding music becomes your responsibility, where do you start?   Undoubtedly, there is great music out there, but it never seems to compare to the beloved soundtrack of yesteryear – particularly that of the teenage years.  Many of us cling to the music that is attached to that time of our lives.  Even in the event we do find something new, we find we prefer it because it is reminiscent of something that is already in the realms of our already fossilized tastes.

One band that seems to have broken into that upper echelon of artists for me over the past five or six years is the Danish band Mew.  They look forward and back in a compelling way that fits well in my musical conception.  I got into them in around 2006, and I rank them up there with Hall & Oates, Tears for Fears, Rush, and King Crimson(My elementary, middle school, high school, and college favorites, respectively).  Their work is consistently epic, melancholy, aggressive, and thought-provoking, and if their YouTube clips are any indication, they are a great live band, as well (which I think is important, but the irony of using YouTube as a measure of this is not lost on me).  If you are looking for new music that may not be mainstream, you could do a lot worse than to at least check them out.  This post is meant to provide a framework for getting into Mew’s oeuvre. 

A quick note before I continue: the “album” is my unit of musical consumption.  I don’t listen to singles, and I don’t use playlists.  I buy CDs and rip them for soft use, but I mostly use the six-CD changer in my Scion XA for listening purposes.  I keep liner notes around in case I need to refer to them.  I understand that some of my more technologically snooty friends scoff at such affectations, but all I have to say to that is – you are being technologically snooty, not to mention elitist.  I connect with my music, and it does not really matter if its part of some amorphous cloud of streaming information or an 8-track, does it?  

That being said, Mew has three “albums” that I suggest.  My introduction to the band was “…And the Glass Handed Kites,” released in 2006. I wrote an Amazon review of that one that I still stand by, so check that out for a more in-depth look.  For now, let’s just say that I listened to “…And the Glass Handed Kites” nearly every day for a long time, and after several months I feared I would burn it out.  I purposely stopped listening to it, and to fill the gap I purchased its predecessor, “Frengers.”  Usually, when I get into a new band, I favor the album that serves as an introduction, but “Frengers” confounds this tendency.

“Frengers” is a little more digestible than “…And the Glass Handed Kites.”  Whereas the latter is a bit more conceptual and complex, the former is a consistent set of free-standing songs.  There were tunes that I initially gravitated toward, the first of which, “156,” is still my representative single of choice as an introduction to Mew.  It showcases their atmospheric side right alongside their more aggressive riff-driven aspects, while singer Jonas Bjerre’s characteristically dreamy approach unifies the entire song by floating above it.  Mew is also great with hiding complexity within accessibility, and for those with an affinity for the subtle might raise an eyebrow at the asymmetrical time changes and melodic bass work hidden in the mix.

Although “156” is an excellent example of Mew’s approach, every single song on “Frengers” reveals different components of the band’s approach.  Eventually, they have all evolved into my “favorite track on the album” for different reasons. Rather than give a track-by-track, I’ll just get to the point and state that “Frengers” is the one to get.   I still like “…And the Glass Handed Kites,” and if you like “Frengers” you will like it as well, but if you want a place to start, here it is. 

Their more recent work, the exhaustively titled “No More Stories/Are Told Today/I’m Sorry They Washed Away//No More Stories/ The World Is Grey/I’m Tired Let’s Wash Away,”  released in 2009, is more atmospheric and complex than even “…And the Glass Handed Kites.”  It is great, and has its moments, but it lacks an inexplicable confidence that the other two exude.  Bassist Johan Wolhert left the band before this recording, and this may have had an impact. “No More Stories…” is also noticeably heavier on texture and lighter on intensity.  There is no “Snow Brigade” or “Special,” which I had a hard time adjusting to.  Don’t misunderstand, I do like and suggest the album, but in comparison to the other two, it might not be the best starting point.

Mew has also recently released a “Best of” compilation called “Eggs are Funny.”  The tracklisting is pretty substantial for this collection, but being an album guy, I rarely get into “Greatest Hits” releases - they always feel jagged and incoherent.  As a unit, albums provide me with a context that enhances all of its parts, so in my opinion, anyone who is genuinely curious about Mew should just get “Frengers” and go from there.

One last thing – I need to correct an unrelated oversight from the January Listening list.  After reading Paul Berliner’s “Thinking in Jazz,” I purchased Art Blakey and the Jazz Messenger’s “Moanin’,” and it turned out to be one of my favorite listening experiences early in January.  I put it away with the intent of letting it stew in my subconscious for awhile.  “Moanin’” is a great, classic jazz recording, and it is a travesty that I forgot to include it on the list.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

January Listening

In the past, we could all be bound together by the music we listened to through the radio or, in my day, MTV.  Now we have more latitude and independence in our listening habits, which comes with a price.  Potentially, our personal playlists remain personal, and the shared musical experiences of the past seem to be more isolated.  On the other hand, I could just be getting old and out-of-step with what is really happening in the music world.

Regardless, there are probably more like me who want to find something new to listen to, and this blog is mainly for them.  I don't want to pontificate too much right off.  There's plenty of time for that later.  Instead, I'll get down to business.  I got a lot of new stuff for Christmas, and as January draws to a close, I want to sum up my listening so far this month.  For the uninitiated, I try to make these "shotgun reviews" no more than two sentences (this sometimes takes some creative grammar: get over it).

Here goes:

Daft Punk: "TRON Legacy Soundtrack" -  Daft Punk's foray into a more orchestral approach is compelling.  It does not totally stand on its own, so It won't exactly unseat John Williams or Danny Elfman, but for the soundtrack to a TRON movie its the right mix of majestic and clever.

Miike Snow - A very slow-cooking repeat from last year that for some reason has really turned on for me recently.  Electronica and songwriting collide full-force on this one, although keep in mind they are a production-driven project: live clips of them are sometimes inconsistent.

"The Sound of Siam - Leftfield Luk Thum, Jazz, and Molam in Thailand, 1964-1975" - I have a soft spot for listening back to the places where Western popular music met local traditions for the first time.  This has some very excellent stuff on it, but a few dogs, too.

The Psychedelic Aliens: "Psycho African Beat" - See above, except in an African context.  Not the most compelling collection of African Psychedelia I have heard (check out World Psychedelic Classics Vol. #3: Love is a Real Thing for that), but the influence of Santana and Jimi Hendrix is definitely noticeable.

KTU: "8 Armed Monkey" -  Warr guitar, accordian, drums, and samples.  You can't deny the chops or the energy of this King Crimson offshoot, but the line between intensity and loudness is sometimes uncomfortably toed, especially when the microtonal caterwauling cranks up. 

J. Paul Slavens: "Alphabet Girls Vol. 1" -  This is a holdover from last year's top ten that is just too good to take out of the player.  If you remember a band called Ten Hands from yesteryear, Slavens was the lead singer- he's developed a bit of a Elvis Costelloesque cleverness in the interim.

GiGI w/Material: "Mesagna Ethiopia" - Considering I was a fan of Material in the 90's and am a recent fan of Ethiopian pop music, this should have been a no-brainer.  I was a little disappointed with it, though.

The Sword: "Warp Riders" -  If you'd like to hear what Sabbath would have sounded like if they had today's production, you should definitely check this one out.  If you are not a diehard fan of the style, however, The Sword can get a little dull (pun intended).
Philip Selway: "Familial" - A surprisingly textured acoustic guitar album from Radiohead's drummer.  That should be enough to pique interest, right?

The Black Keys: "Brothers" -  Another holdover from last year that would have made a top twenty list, but not the top ten.  Sometimes a band lives up to their hype.

Dengue Fever: "Escape from Dragon House" - a Cambodian singer meets up with and LA funk-groove band, and they produce the soundtrack for all the lost cold-war era James Bond movies (y'know, 'cuz so many are lost).  Has some real highlights, as well as a couple of yawners. 
I also plopped the 2003 album "Frengers" by Mew in the player somewhat carelessly last week, and I have fully decided that it belongs on my top-10-stranded-on-a-desert-island-for-reallz list of albums.  I think, however, that this deduction may deserve its own blog post.  For now, do your own YouTube searches and whatnot and get acquainted.  There will be a quiz.  

 In my post-birthday musical landscape, I got Sean Lennon's "Friendly Fire," The Budos Band "III," and "Deerhoof vs. Evil" coming up.  I'll sew it up for now, though.  I know better than to ramble too much online, and I'm thinking the Indian Buffet nearby sounds dang good for dinner.