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.


  1. i'll always be able to credit dr. spin for introducing me to mew.

  2. Love 156! (and the elitist comments of course ;)