In Brief: (m)orning would be Album of the Year material, if only it were a full-length album. But what they’ve got here is the extremely promising beginning of an admirable year-long project.
What’s in a name? Any first-time listener presented with a band called Mae probably comes up with that question first and foremost. It seems short, slight, almost diminutive, since it is a woman’s name, after all, which seems like an odd choice for an all-male outfit dedicated to their own special brand of slightly progressive power pop. “Sensitive” might not be a bad descriptor to glean from this choice of a band name. Even in their most intense, rock-oriented moments, you can tell that these guys are just trying to piece together the clues to some relationship that didn’t work out, or coming to grips with personal failings, or shoot, just flying high and feeling like the only one on Earth who knows what real love feels like. If bands with girly names who sing about this sort of thing don’t appeal to you, it’s probably best to stop here.
OK, are all of the insecure bullies gone? Good. Those still reading probably suspect (or already know from experience) that there’s more to Mae than this. And you’re right – their name, while not fully capitalized, is actually an acronym which stands for “Multisensory Aesthetic Experience.” How exactly that works when the vast majority of their output is audio, I don’t know, but my first exposure to the band was 2005’s The Everglow, which had an amusing, children’s book sort of setup to it, complete with hand-drawn illustrations in the liner notes that cast the album’s songs as chapters of a bedtime story. Apparently you’re not allowed that sort of creative leeway in the grownup world of mainstream music, since Mae’s brief flirtation with major label success came and went on 2007’s Singularity – not at all a bad record, and one which contained its thematic layers if you looked closely, but one which also dulled their progressive edge a bit in favor of a leaner (and confusingly synthesizer-oriented) modern rock sound. It worked at times and sounded pedestrian at others. Secretly, I’m kinda glad it didn’t work out for them, because their return to independence has shown a new zeal for creativity in their latest EP, the first of a 3-disc set, simply titled (m)orning.
Now normally I don’t like it when bands retreat from the pressures of making full-length albums and decide to just throw songs out there in a piecemeal fashion (usually via the Internet) without much attention to how coherent their output is when played back to back. Mae is fortunately still taking a thematic approach, and even adding a double meaning to their name in the process (since the next two EPs, due later this year, are entitled (a)fternoon and (e)vening. Why the parenthesis? Yeah, now I get it.) So while it may be hard to get the true “Multisensory” experience out of this first EP (I’ve heard physical copies are scratch and sniff? No, seriously), there’s definitely a sense that they know how to pick a theme and work with it. (m)orning‘s songs are much more than you’d expect from a humble 8-song EP (actually, only 5 songs and 3 instrumental tracks), since the disc displays some of Mae’s most progressive work thus far within its first couple songs, also bringing back the little sonic connections that bridge the songs, which gave The Everglow an extra sense of continuity. Pretty remarkable, given that these songs were originally written as part of a challenge the band gave themselves, to write one song a month and donate the proceeds from each individual download to a different charity. (m)orning shows us that some of the band’s most inspired moments come without a label boss or outside producer watching over their shoulder – if a song wants to develop into a 3-part suite, it can, and if it wants to dally around as a joyous instrumental jam, it can. Most importantly, each of these songs (with the exception of one that needs its lead-out instrumental to complete it) can be enjoyed on its own, brimming with fun little bits of instrumentation and gleaming choruses that pop right out at you once you’ve adjusted to the unorthodox rhythmic curves that many of these songs navigate through. Dream Theater going power pop instead of metal, or a less snotty-sounding Green Day, would be a good starting place for a comparison. (And I like that DT is metal and that GD is snotty, before you write me that nasty Email.)
More than just intricately crafted pop goodness, though, I get a sense of meaning out of this album that I haven’t gotten from Mae since The Everglow. It’s not the most original thing in the world to theme a record around the breaking of a new day, and the sights and sounds and feelings that come with a glorious sunrise. These ideas are as old as time itself. But listening to this CD gives you a “you are there” sort of feeling, as if you’re the one hopping in the car and driving to some Virginia beach just as those first cracks of light are peeking out over the Atlantic Ocean. I feel immersed in Dave Elkins‘ clarity of thought as expressed here, in his elation over the chance to start anew and let the weights and worries of the previous day float off to sea, never to be heard from again. It’s no mistake that these sentiments come across as genuine – Mae’s mission for the year 2009 was not just to make good music without the support of a proper record label (which is an admirable goal in and of itself), but also to use this music as conduit to spread awareness and raise support for various charities. Four of (m)orning‘s songs were previously released individually, as digital downloads in exchange for $1 donations and the help of fans to spread the word about organizations chosen by some of their fans which focus on bringing art and education to underprivileged youth. You won’t get any platitudes about saving the world within these songs, but in a roundabout way, they do serve as a testament to the power of music and art to help mend burned bridges and build memories that can last a lifetime.
So yeah, it’s an unabashedly optimistic record. These things only work when the experience rings true. Maybe I’m just at a point where I need this right now, but the music of (m)orning, despite its brevity, feels like a feast for the soul.
1. Good (m)orning
This minute-and-a-half-long intro track isn’t really much on its own – just a series of bird chirps, electronic bleeps, and vaguely jazzy guitar chords that serve as a bookend, an introductory instrumental that will come full circle later on.
2. The Fisherman Song (We All Need Love)
The intro track fades nicely into a song that seems like a delicate acoustic ballad at first, but slowly develops into a behemoth, double-stuffed musical suite over the course of eight and a half minutes. One might consider this overly ambitious and perhaps even foolhardy for a band like Mae whose previous “epics” have basically been drawn-out ballads that express their unique musical ideas within the length of a normal pop song and then just sort of drone on for several minutes from there (“The Sun and the Moon” or “Reflection”, the grand finales of their last two albums, are examples of this). But as an initial foray into the world of progressive rock, this song actually turns out to be pretty awesome, morphing from its delicate beginnings into a poppy, electric guitar-driven song before taking a left turn into bouncier, edgier territory in much the same way as a Green Day behemoth like “Jesus of Suburbia”. This one might be about the Jesus of the Marina, actually, since it involves Dave Elkins driving down to the beach at the crack of dawn to try and get some peace and quiet and finish a stubborn song that just won’t allow itself to be finished, only for a grizzled old man to approach him and offer him a boat ride. If you start to get flashbacks to a particular episode involving Jesus and the disciples aboard a boat in the midst of a rocky sea, you’re on the right track here as the music begins to reflect the bumpy ride as Dave and the strange old man get into a discourse about the true meaning of love and frustratingly difficult it is to actually express it in a real, lasting fashion. After some fun, rhythmic passages that allow for a bit of electric guitar goodness, the song eventually settles back into its initial calm mode as the ride ends and Dave is left with the lessons he took away from the old man as the guy mysteriously sails away into the morning clouds. The moral of the story – an emphatic cry that “We all need love!” – may be a bit obvious and cloying to some, but it’s one of those things which the song capably explains as being easy to say, but really hard to put into practice.
3. The House that Fire Built
When the guitar feedback that ends the previous track collides into this similarly long monster of a song, my first thought is that there’s no way the awkward rhythm of the drums (which sounds like 4/4 but keeps skipping a beat at regular intervals) could ever build into a memorable rock song. I’m completely wrong, of course – even if it might not be catchy by normal pop music standards, it’s a wonderful synthesis of poppy piano rock, gritty guitar-driven alternative rock, and even a little bit of electronica thrown in just to add to the mystery. This was apparently the song that gave Mae their mission statement – the idea here is to start a fire that builds rather than destroys, that catches on infectiously as the people infected by it become convicted to live for something greater than themselves. While this song has more of an identifiable verse/chorus structure than the previous one, the long bridge section is where it truly gets ignited, proving that an oddly-shaped foundation doesn’t prevent a song from becoming a rock-solid, structurally sound skyscraper if put in the hands of the right architects. The ending, which goes back to that original lopsided foundation, is admittedly a bit odd due to how it cuts off suddenly with the sound of keys turning off a car’s ignition, as if someone had been playing the track in their vehicle and they had just parked, but this bleeds seamlessly into the next track in its own interesting way.
Mae’s newfound love for gnarled rhythms affects even their poppiest songs, as evidenced by this fun, jumpy little rocker that tries to put the lessons of love learned in “The Fisherman Song” to good use. Lots of guitar riffage punctuates Dave’s frustration as relationship crumbles before his very eyes, and apparently it’s been one of those “on again, off again” things, given how the “boomerang” analogy is used to describe the way she keeps coming back to him. Optimism still permeates the song, though, ebcause this time he’s determined to learn a lesson and let her go for good – not as a “good riddance” sort of thing, but just because he realizes her love is better suited for someone else and “getting out alone will help me grow my own pair of wings”. He sees the letting go as enabling both of them to take flight and become something better than they were together. So there’s no malice when he urges her to “go on and on for someone else”. The song is a total blast due to how it rapidly navigates around all of the musical blind corners and punchy instrumental bits such as the horn section (probably coming from a keyboard, but still fun despite its obvious fakeness) that crops up during the bridge. It eventually relaxes into an acoustic instrumental that forges right ahead into the next track without the transition even being noticeable.
5. Two Birds
And what a glorious instrumental this is! It’s excellent to discover that a band previously committed to making mostly compact pop and rock songs (even within a semi-artsy “indie rock” sort of environment) can let loose and give themselves a chance to riff on a musical idea for a few minutes and just see where it goes. The acoustic outro of “Boomerang” becomes the main chord progression for a slightly jazzy/loungy interlude featuring liberal doses of flute and piano, soaring over the landscape as if to indicate that the two former lovers from the previous song are finally free. Some folks will find it cheesy and repetitive, but for me, these two tracks joined together are the high point of the entire EP.
6. A Melody, the Memory
By far the album’s most straightforward pop song, this one gets blown in on a gentle breeze after the chirping birds close out the previous track, and it develops in its own euphoric way, Jacob Marshall‘s drums marching and rolling brilliantly as Dave’s sweet but simple vocal melody invites a lover to reminisce over their romance with the aid of special songs that capture different memories as frozen moments in time. The mush factor is off the scale here, and this might totally fail if not for the band’s uncanny ability to bring a solid pop/rock song to a satisfying climax, filled to the brim with swelling strings and a victorious coda of “Whoa”s. It’s all of the classic pop song tricks in the book, re-envisioned in a satisfyingly progressive package.
This disc has been full of climaxes, but this track probably delivers the most thrilling climax of them all, easing in slowly with its tales of late, sleepless nights and the hazy, only half-lived days that follow, as Dave declares that he’s missed out on too many glorious mornings and insists, “There’ll be no more sleeping in”. It’s hard to tell where this song’s going to end up based on its unassuming beginning – it hits several plateaus and subsequently reconfigures itself – first changing from basic rock ballad into more of an acoustic-driven interlude with more of the band’s patented rhythmic trickery, only for that to eventually crescendo into a “big happy moment” with electric guitars blaring and the band in full-on anthem mode, empathically delcaring a desire to “Wake up every morning and make it mine”. How is this different from any other “seize the day” sort of song? Other than the unique musical approach, it probably wouldn’t be, without the thoughts and lessons leading up to it throughout this short but fulfilling disc. I love the way that the band takes another left turn just when you think they’re going for the big finish, morphing the song one final time into a grungy electric guitar solo and then pulling the plug on it suddenly in another one of those “eject the CD and get out of the car” sorts of moments.
8. (m)orning Drive
The instrumental from the beginning of the disc bleeds in slowly and eventually fades away again, becoming the soundtrack to a peaceful morning walk through the woods, a chance to ponder the wisdom gained during a morning that would have otherwise been missed by sleeping until noon. Birds are chirping again and there’s the sound of footsteps crunching leaves, and then the disc ends with Dave greeting his bandmates under some distant canopy of trees: “Good morning.”
While (m)orning is every bit as enjoyable (if not more) as Mae’s full-length albums, its status as an EP which is the first of a three-disc project renders it ineligible (at least when taken on its own) for my year-end “Best Albums” list – a list which it could probably claim the top spot on if it only had a few more songs. But Mae felt it important to keep each four-month phase of their charity project confined to its own disc, so I’m expecting that they might take a different approach on the upcoming (a)fternoon and (e)vening EPs. If the music and songwriting are as thoroughly excellent as they are here, perhaps the entire collection could qualify as an “album” of sorts (three discs of this length would roughly equal the output found on an average double album, so it’s not like they’re skimping on content here). But regardless of my difficulty in categorizing things, this is awesome music that deserves to be heard by any pop/rock aficionados out there, or anyone who can simply admire a band for the ability to give back to their community while making music that is worthy of the donations being requested. If that idea intrigues you at all, then please visit the band’s website and check out (m)orning. You’ll be glad you went to the effort.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Good (m)orning $0
The Fisherman Song (We All Need Love) $2
The House that Fire Built $2
Two Birds $1
A Melody, the Memory $2
(m)orning Drive $1
Dave Elkins: Lead vocals, guitar
Zach Gehring: Guitar
Jacob Marshall: Drums
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.