Thursday, August 12, 2010

More Than Just “…alright”

For the most part, I feel as though I trust my iTunes. When I uncheck a song that I used to listen to in high school, iTunes understands that I gave up pop-punk long ago. I no longer try to skateboard. I no longer wear Volcom and Hurley religiously. I’m not a teenager anymore; I don’t stereotypically blame my parents and school officials for everything bad that happens. Now, I’m a grown-up college student who stereotypically denies ever having been so stupid in high school. iTunes understands my transformation: it leaves The Starting Line and The Ataris unchecked. Yet, just months ago, I realized that my beloved iTunes had betrayed me.

I had finally gotten my hands on the newest mewithoutYou album, it's all crazy! it's all false! it's all a dream! it's alright, and I eagerly began to import it onto my computer in order to hear it on good quality speakers. Soon after, I was shocked and downright disgusted to see how iTunes had classified one of my favorite bands. iTunes told me that the genre of mewithoutYou’s fourth full-length album was “Alternative and Punk.” Now, I’m not one to get wrapped up in the musical genre debate. Most of the time, I don’t have any idea what musical sound a genre signifies (what is shoegaze, twostep, and baroque pop?). Though I’m baffled by most genres, I know enough to adamantly declare that calling mewithoutYou’s album “Alternative and Punk” is not only insulting to the band’s musical growth over the years, but it is completely wrong.

If you have ever listened to it's all crazy! it's all false! it's all a dream! it's alright, you know that there is very little within the album that sounds like the genre of punk. mewithoutYou’s fourth full-length effort represents a complete transformation from the earlier days of the band when punk was arguably a more obvious influence. [A
to B] Life, the band’s first album released back in 2002, was largely categorized as post hardcore. With Aaron Weiss’s screaming vocals and the heaviness of songs such as “Nice and Blue,” it’s no surprise that mewithoutYou was assigned to this genre. The band’s second album, Catch for Us the Foxes, was released in 2004 and followed along similar lines, though it gained attention for its more experimental sound. After bassist Daniel Pishock left the band in 2004, Greg Jehanian replaced him. In 2006, mewithoutYou released Brother, Sister, their third album. It was the most successful of the three and hit number 116 on the Billboard 200. It features an appearance by Jeremy Enigk (formerly of Sunny Day Real Estate) on “O, Porcupine.” Brother, Sister, unlike the previous two albums, showcased Aaron Weiss’s vocal abilities. Weiss took full advantage of what I call talk-singing, perhaps better described as spoken word vocals. Also, in songs like “Orange Spider,” “Brownish Spider,” and “Yellow Spider,” you can hear Aaron Weiss work with his unconventional voice, rather than cover it up by screaming and shouting. The band also utilized various horns as well as the harp and accordion. This album established mewithoutYou firmly in the genre of indie rock (possibly a result of the inability of critics to define their new sound).

mewithoutYou released it's all crazy! it's all false! it's all a dream! it's alright in 2009. It is a far cry from the band’s early days. Musically, it seems that members Aaron Weiss, Michael Weiss, Greg Jehanian, and Richard Mazzotta, have abandoned their former sound and opted for folk-driven songs akin to Neutral Milk Hotel. This is most obvious in “Allah, Allah, Allah” in which there is a buildup of drums and horns that sounds quite similar to “Untitled” by Neutral Milk Hotel. Instruments used on the album have extended to include bells and violins as well as the acoustic guitar. Weiss also abandons his trademark spoken-word vocals and instead sings on every track. The album’s name it's all crazy! it's all false! it's all a dream! it's alright comes directly from the book The Golden Words of a Sufi Sheikh by Bawa Muhaiyaddeen. Songs like “The Fox, The Crow, and The Cookie” and “Fig with a Bellyache” explore the specific teachings of Bawa Muhaiyaddeen. In addition, Weiss uses his Judeo-Christian upbringing to inspire his lyrics.

The second song on it's all crazy! it's all false! it's all a dream! it's alright is also the first single released from the album. In “The Fox, The Crow, and The Cookie,” Weiss delves into the teachings of Bawa Muhaiyaddeen and his story of the fox, the crow, and the cookie. Weiss plays acoustic guitar as upbeat drums and bass carry us through the story of a fox and crow. These two animals unsuccessfully attempt to steal sweets from a local baker’s cart. They decide to team up and when the fox distracts the baker, the crow is able to steal goods from the cart. When the fox asks for his fair share, the crow refuses. Yet, the fox is clever and uses his intellect to fool the crow into giving him a candy. Weiss sings the words of the fox to the crow: “’Then if your lovely song would grace my ears, or to even hear you speak would ease my pains and fears.’ The Crow looked down with the candy in his beak. ‘Your poems of wisdom, my Good Crow, what a paradise they bring.’ This flattery pleased the proud bird so he opened his mouth and began to sing.” When the crow sings, the candy falls to the ground to the awaiting fox. In this way, the fox uses the crow’s own pride against him. mewithoutYou has also released a music video for this song in which string puppets reenact the story.

“Fig with a Bellyache” is another song on the album that highlights the teachings of Bawa Muhaiyaddeen . It is perhaps the most controversial. Taken from Muhaiyaddeen’s teachings in The Divine Luminous Wisdom..., it explores the realities of sexual temptation. The song is framed around acoustic guitar picking and Aaron Weiss’s vocals, which are routinely interrupted by bells and an almost childlike chant of “ladadada, dadada.” Halfway through the song, a harp interrupts the guitar and Weiss sings, “We pretend to care and like we understand, our eyes go soft but know it now: what we’re thinking about is your mammary glands and how to sail your birth canal.” He goes on to say, “That dog below our waist’s aroused, as arms embraced the pretty gals. It came much more as a surprise, it happening while I hugged the guys. We planted for the final frost, we once were found and now we’re lost. We got a heck of a lot to learn about remaining taciturn.” Since Aaron Weiss often relies on biblical teachings to inspire his lyrics, mewithoutYou is sometimes considered a spiritual or Christian band. The lyrics within “Fig with a Bellyache” could be offensive to many in the Christian community for its acknowledgment of sexual temptation even in the most faithful of people.

My favorite song on this album is “Bullet to Binary (Pt. Two)” because it distinctly represents the musical evolution that mewithoutYou has gone through. Often times, mewithoutYou will take a previous song and rework it using the same lyrics or similar instrumentation. They did this on Brother, Sister when they reworked “Nice and Blue” which originally appeared on their first album, [A
to B] Life. “Bullet to Binary” also appeared on [A to B] Life back in 2002. Their decision to rework this older song seven years after its initial debut is a testament to their musical growth. In “Bullet to Binary (Pt. Two),” Weiss and company move between acoustic guitar and song breaks that incorporate drum fills and electric guitar leads. Weiss shouts in the beginning, but sings the rest of the time. In the original “Bullet to Binary,” Weiss screams the entire time while the drums remain a consistent pace. In all honesty, the original is awful compared to “Bullet to Binary (Pt. Two).”

A band’s sound almost always changes across the span of multiple albums. Some get better, some get worse, and some get terrible, but it is very rare to witness a leap such as that taken by mewithoutYou. Originally considered a part of the post hardcore genre, mewithoutYou has developed a new sound that is not “Alternative and Punk” (as iTunes says), but is folk and indie rock. Why would iTunes categorize mewithoutYou as “Punk” when there is no discernible punk sound in the entirety of it's all crazy! it's all false! it's all a dream! it's alright? Calling them “Punk” keeps them within the confines of their original album and a time when they were only just beginning to explore their musical capabilities as a band. It takes bravery to create the music you love rather than the music that got you noticed; this is exactly what mewithoutYou did. This reason alone makes it's all crazy! it's all false! it's all a dream! it's alright a noteworthy album. Yet, it is also a work of extraordinary musicianship, and will keep you coming back again and again (and again and again…).

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