In Brief: Still good, but not the crowning achievement they led us to expect after their first album.
“Our goal is to embarrass the first record, that’s what we’re trying to do here, and I think we’re on point to pull it off.”
–Paul Meany, March 2008
Don’t you just hate it when musicians say stuff like that about their previous work? I know I do, especially when it’s something I really enjoyed. I figure it’s perfectly natural for an artist to want to outdo their previous recordings – shoot, I wouldn’t be such a fan if I thought they were just being slackers and setting the bar low for themselves – but sometimes it’s frustrating for a band to show such a lack of confidence in their past work and/or to create unrealistically high expectations for whatever they’re currently working on. I suppose that’s inescapable in a world where art and business collide – some musicians are just born PR guys, and Lord knows Bono does this sort of thing for every U2 album and Brandon Flowers is always setting us up for rapid deflation when he makes promises about The Killers aspiring to be the best band in the world. I have no doubt that these artists believe in the integrity of their work, and I feel the same about Meany and his band Mute Math. But come on, man, that first album was nothing to be embarrassed about. What you need to set us up for is not necessarily something that we can all expect to blow that album away, but something different that presents new facets of your band not heard on that first record. Aside from those of us who just hear catchy singles and want to hear more of the same, most of us who listen to your band are probably smart enough to expect you not to repeat yourselves. Allow us to like what’s new without having to diss the old stuff in the process.
If you’ve never heard of Mute Math before, then you’re probably wondering what all the fuss is about. The band, which plays its own special high-energy, emotionally bouyant form of rock & roll for the electronic age, spent the better part of two years slowly building buzz for their self-titled album, which first surfaced in early 2006, but didn’t see a wide release until later that year, and only starting picking up steam with the hit single “Typical” in 2007 (“Control”, which took until 2008 to hit radio waves despite first being recording way back in 2004, was apparently too late to follow up on that success). It was a record packed with high-octane songs that were also highly singable – there was never a doubt that an immense amount of human soul existed behind all of the sampling and knob-turning. The band slowly built up a reputation for being a phenomenal live act thanks to their innovative use of live sampling, Meany’s energetic performances that he threw his entire body into, and the seemingly four-armed monster Darren King behind the drum kit. Early glimpses at new songs as the band tested them in front of live audiences seemd promising, but at some point in 2008, the band scrapped the sessions and started over. It wasn’t until late summer 2009 that they finally emerged with a sophomore album, Armistice, brought into the world under the guidance of producer Dennis Herring. This immediately brought a few other musicians’ war stories to mind – Dave Matthews Band‘s now-easily-attainable Lillywhite Sessions became the stuff of legend after they scrapped years of hard work for the happier, poppier, and ultimately less satisfying material heard on Everyday, and anyone who followed Jars of Clay during the difficult years following their breakthrough first album is probably aware of how hard Herring pushed the band outside of their comfort zone during the sessions for If I Left the Zoo (which I regard as one of their finest albums, but it’s a period the band seldom revisits and the fact that they’ve mostly self-produced after that says something about the difficulty of making that record). I have no idea if Mute Math has a lot of “lost sessions” lying around other than a few B-sides attached to international versions of Armistice, but I can see how spending time in the studio with Herring at the production helm could result in a change of focus.
The self-titled disc was all about big happy explosions of sound with plenty of room for instrumental jamming and a few downbeat, meditative moments, occasionally turning a weary eye at the difficulties of life, but for the most part serving as an immensely uplifting record. If that record had a fault, it was that it had too much open-ended stuff (excellently performed, of course) and not enough song content – at my count, only nine full-fledged songs out of its 13 tracks. Armistice, while you’d never accuse it of not sounding like Mute Math, has the opposite problem. 12 songs, all of them targeted to a neat and tidy runtime of 3-5 minutes save for one lengthy piece at the end, and many of them bringing Mute Math’s trademark “sonic busy-ness” down a notch. This is a band that loves to layer sounds and test the limits of your speakers, and while they can also do minimal quite well, it’s weird to hear them spending significantly more time in the downbeat department. The problem is most noticeable not when the band is in genuine ballad mode – that’s when you expect them to make a lot out of very little – but when they’re in the in-between spots that aren’t quite rockers and aren’t quite ballads. On the self-titled disc, even those songs would slowly build into sonic euphoria – here, some of them just politely do their job and are then quietly ushered away. I don’t know about you, but if a band is looking to “embarrass” an old record, turning down the intensity level and settling a little closer to civilized pop/rock territory probably ain’t the way to do it.
Then there’s the issue of lyrics. I would never accuse Paul Meany of being a horrible songwriter – it might just be the energetic rasp of his voice, he’s good at wringing a lot of emotion out of the simplest words. He’s not a particularly wordy songwriter – look at some of the band’s best songs, and you’ll find a pretty basic verse/chorus structure with a minimum of words that are simply repeated to great effect. But when the subject matter turns from the more vertical focus of the first album to the “troubled relationship” material that permeates Armistice, the vague sense of malaise can get wearying after a while. Armistice simply isn’t a happy record. Many great works of art aren’t particularly happy – some are seemingly created when the artist is downright miserable, in fact – but this time around it feels like there’s less of a silver lining to be gleaned from the hurt, as if Meany is simply admitting defeat. That’s not to say that Armistice lacks the high-energy material that gets me pumped, or that none of its ballads are worthwhile. But this sure is a long ways off from the band who once sang with almost prayerful fervor, “Take control of the atmosphere”, “Break the spell of the typical”, and “You stay true when my world is false”. Maybe it’ll speak to different people for that reason. It just isn’t speaking to me all that much.
But I still enjoy the music. Mute Math has made a good record. They haven’t done their fans a huge disservice or anything. Armistice is likeable enough; it just has the unfortunate burden of being saddled with expectations that it doesn’t fully live up to.
1. The Nerve
If you like Mute Math for their busy, inventive percussion and their infectious grooves, then this track, with its fast-paced rumbling bass line will definitely be for you. If you like the band more for their savvy sense of melody, then you might come up a bit short here. I’m somewhere in between, so I see this song as an experiment in how far you can stretch what is essentially a one-chord groove, and still derive some sort of pop sensibility from out of the funk. It seems like more of a mid-album experiment than the sort of thing you’d want to lead off an album with, but it’s good to defy expectations from time to time. Paul Meany seems like he’s got just as much of an axe to grind as he did in the old days, back when he used to perform fiery rap verses for Earthsuit, but this is really more of a “sprechesang” than straight-up rap. His ranting about how the world takes love and throws a lot of crap back in your face leads him to the rather extreme conclusion, “Set it on fire!”, which is shouted many times over a one-note guitar riff in the chorus. How they manage to wring a sense of musical inventiveness out of a track that would sound like bone-headed nu-metal recorded a decade too late in the hands of most other bands, I’ll never know. it ain’t Mute Math’s best work, but it’ll certainly get your attention. (Public Service Announcement: If you live in the Greater Los Angeles area and are listening to this song right now, please don’t take its advice literally. Thank you.)
A little bit of melody starts to compete with the guitar funk here – Greg Hill is on point with a deliciously warped guitar riff, while Paul Meany busts out with one of his punchiest choruses yet, lamenting how every plan that mankind makes will eventually blow up in our faces. This theme is a tad redundant if you’ve heard the superior track “Plan B” from the band’s early days, and here there’s really no talk of who has a better Plan A in mind, but there’s still an Ecclesiastical undertone to this one that I enjoy. Plus, it’s just plain fun, with the guitar riffs suddenly slipping into scratchy palm muting and jumping back out again, and the infectious rhythm of the whole thing – makes me want to do some sort of a jerky robot dance that I won’t actually do for fear of embarrassing myself. This one’s bound to become a live favorite – the band certainly tore it up playing this song on Letterman last week, even with no room for an extended jam due to the usual TV time constraints.
Musically, this is probably my favorite track on the record. It’s aptly named, given the effect that they applied to the electronic haze that opens the song, and the fast-paced, chopped-up drums that carry the song in quick 6/8 time. There are few moments these days where I would compare a band’s work to something that Linkin Park did and intend for that to be a positive comparison – but listen to the drum work in LP’s “The Little Things Give You Away” and tell me this isn’t similarly awesome. (Plus I have total faith in Darren King to be able to replicate this in a live setting.) Meany’s shimmering chorus melody dares to bring hope to a hopeless subject, and there’s an absolutely sweet string section brakdown in the middle eight – definitely a new sound for Mute Math. The downside? I get so caught up in the musical trickery that I don’t notice how close this song’s lyrics come to saying absolutely of nothing. There’s only one verse, and then a chorus repeated many times with slight variations, all of which are along the lines of “I don’t know what to feel any more/I don’t know what is real any more”, etc. Basically, it’s a bunch of simple rhyming couplets that an angsty college freshman uncertain of what major to pick could have penned. It’s jarring to juxtapose since simplistic phrases with Meany’s obvious gift for memorably intense melodies. All I’ve got to say about that is that if you want me to be convinced of your existential crisis, you’d better flesh it out a little more than this. Despite that, I’ll still crank this song up every time, because the sound of it is pure mad alchemy.
When you’re Mute Math and you’ve built up a reputation for singles with a lot of kinetic energy, there’s probably no better way to introduce your next album to the world than with a song like this, which gives fans of your previous work an easily digestable link between new and old. That is to say, this is the song that sounds the most like the old Mute Math I knew and love. It comes screaming out of the speakers (almost literally, given the dramatic sound effect that wallops you right at the beginning) and immediately launches into a fast-paced guitar riff and some of King’s best “obstacle course-style” drumming, while Meany runs all up and down the thing with an ingenious vocal hook. I’d be willing to bet good money that the handclaps which take over for the drum section here and there were Dennis Herring’s contribution (the man seems to have a thing for the sound of clapping hands – see a few key tracks that he’s done for Jars of Clay and Counting Crows), but they’re all drenched in reverb and fast enough to keep up with the drums, so it’s still a trademark Mute Math moment when they chime in. This is all used to wryly initaite us into the world of celebrity, as Meany slyly tells those who want to be big rock stars like him, “Just take a fall, you’re one of us!” Sure, songwriters have been writing and rewriting the old diatribe about how people love to watch those above them fall from their pedestals since Sixpence None the Richer tackled the subject on their first album and long before that, so it’s not like this is anything new, but it comes with a little extra bite given the grief that people gave the band when they raised objections to their first disc being sold as “Christian music”. I’ve had my eye on the Christian music crowd long enough to know that they love to cannibalize their own.
5. No Response
There was a track on the original self-released version of Mute Math’s first album – a rarity after it got kicked to the curb for the retail version – called “Without It”, which I thought was pleasant enough but probably one of the album’s weaker tracks as it just sort of breezed on by without as much melodic or rhythmic impact as the other songs. I sort of feel the same way about this one – it means well with its glistening, mellow beat and Paul using the smoother side of his voice as if to offer a sense of comfort rather than urgency. But when I listen to the words, it just doesn’t stick. It’s just another round of hopelessness, expressing the failure to understand life, the universe, and pretty much everything as far as I can tell, and the desire to stick one’s head in the sand because “imaginary friends” aren’t offering any answers to whatever urgent questions are being asked. I don’t want to read too much into this one. Some will take it as the words of a man losing his faith in God. I think it could be an effort to identify with someone who feels this way, not necessarily a statement of where Paul Meany or his fellow band members are at, faith-wise. But man, if you’re gonna talk about a crisis of faith, at least express it in an interesting way. This is rather banal.
6. Pins and Needles
The band goes even mellower for this, one of their most minimal tracks yet, but since Darren King’s showing off his jazzier side with a drum beat that’s pretty much all cymbals and snares (the light touch is apt, given the title of the song), I think it’s actually pretty awesome to see this unexpected side of the band. The acknowledgment of meaninglessness finally gives way to a bit of wisdom here, as Meany realizes how much work it is to constantly put up a facade that implies he’s got everything all together. Again, it’s a sentiment that many singers, Christian and non, have expressed before, but the clincher is his little revelation that “I’m growing fond of broken people, as I see that I am one of them”. That right there could be the key to Mute Math’s reasoning for getting out of the Christian music game. Talking across to people who you see as being on the same level playing field as yourself is often more effective than talking down to them, which is not to say all bands who self-identify as “Christian music” are talking down to people, but you know, sometimes people are more receptive when a musician can say, “I’m no better than you” and sound like they truly believe it. That’s just my thought on where this is going – Meany could be writing about something else entirely, given how open to interpretation most of his lyrics are. There’s an extremely well executed and completely unexpected touch at the end of the song, when a brief violin interlude takes over, and it sounds almost exactly like the kind of thing you’d hear on an album of Andrew Bird‘s instrumental doodling.
Here’s another item in the list of sentiments that Mute Math is not the first to express – the idea that the entire world will collapse if a lover leaves. What Meany lacks in original thoughts, he more than makes up for once again with his earnest vocal delivery and his pursuit of the perfect pop melody, which manifests itself in one of the album’s most likely hit singles. It’s hard not to get swept away by the infectious backbeat here, and the catchy tune of the chorus as it cycles through all of Meany’s thoughts about various solar system bodies and weather systems that will cease to function properly “if you say goodbye”. A bit melodramatic? Sure. But it’ll put a bigger smile on your face than a breakup song is supposed to, especially when they bring in the bells or glass bottles or whatever wicked cool percussion instrument King is rattling around on during the final chorus.
So now we’re going to end up exploring a bit of relationship drudgery for a few tracks, with this one in particular falling flat due to the way its shuffle-and-clap rhythm never quite seems to get off the ground. It might be the fault of the melody, which doesn’t really seem to change or “lift” in the way that it needs to in order to set the chorus apart when it arrives. meany just sounds really, really depressed about the fact that two people (or a group of people, or perhaps a whole country full of people) can’t seem to agree on anything except that they don’t want to be around each other and that “the odds are, we’ll be better off”. Resignation just isn’t a mood that fits this band. It just bums me out to hear them like this.
You’d expect nothing less than a jolt to the system when a song is given such a title, and Mute Math delivers that quite well as Greg Hill’s stormy guitar riffs bring the band back to life for a much more giddy, albeit somewhat superficial, love song written with the help of Meany’s old vocal partner from Earthsuit, Adam LaClave. This song’s all about a girl knowing how to push a guy’s buttons and make him totally hot for her, and exploiting that as much as she can. More conservative listeners will likely raise an eyebrow at the line “I hope that someday she might go to far”, or even the possible innuendo in the line I feel it running through my bones”. I’m not sure I’m a huge fan of it myself, not for any prudish reason, but just because it sounds kind of silly coming from a band that normally seems to have a bit more on their minds. But context is important here. If we assume that some of the surrounding songs are documenting a marriage slowly coming apart at the seams, then maybe this song is about a bit of totally-called-for makeup sex. Just sayin’.
The title track brings a bit of the band’s native New Orleans into their sound, by incorporating a peppy horn section that knows exactyly when to punctuate the song’s funky rhythm with the right touch of attitude. We delve a little further into Meany’s psyche here, as he gives away his tactics for keeping a relationship civil – when in doubt, take the blame and hope the whole thing blows over. (Maybe that’s not how he actually does it; maybe he just knows someone who does it this way. I’ll grant some artistic license here.) The description of a relationship as a cease-fire agreement isa concept I’ve heard before (in fact, I learned the definition of the word “Armistice” from a song by Vienna Teng that mines similar territory), and interestingly, the word “armistice” never actually appears in the lyrics, with the main hook summing up the gist of it: “You don’t have to say it, I know it’s all my fault”. The key to his whole strategy lies in the bridge – “I will take the fall if it takes us somewhere” – but you have to wonder if letting one person be the scapegoat for everything could ever really help them get to the bottom of the underlying issues. According to the song that follows this one, apparently it doesn’t.
11. Lost Year
Mute Math reaches the pinnacle of their sadness here, with the most radical departure from their signature sound yet… a piano ballad. What the… ? Stuff like this should normally be left for bands who are much less sophisticated in the groove department, don’t you think? I mean, this isn’t bad – it might sound revelatory in the hands of your average Coldplay-wannabe crooners due to its soft, spiraling rhythm and the watery echo of the keyboards and the warm background ambiance that it’s set against – but it’s just a bit too far from the things that Mute Math really excels at. If “Odds” was vaguely bummed out, this song is no-holds-barred bawling its eyes out, with such stunning relevations as “Nothing’s a breeze, we suffer, we bleed” and “If there was something that could’ve saved us, we’d have found it by now.” Hey look, I’m not opposed to a good breakup song. I think there’s a lot of healing that can happen when you allow yourself to honestly assess a relationship that isn’t working out and just accept that life is going to be lonely as hell for a while. That’s reality for a lot of long-term couples who break up, probably even more so if they divorce. But I feel like there’s no wisdom gained here – it’s just unmitigated sorrow, and I’ll admit to being a bit relieved when it comes to an end.
Well, if you haven’t caught the hint by now that the band was in a heavier state of mind when they wrote this record, the title of its final song oughta clue you in. But this one’s not really a downer. In fact, the Mute Math of old gets to come out and play, even waxing a bit spiritual to the tune of a killer drum beat that sounds like a sudden confident advance after all of the apologizing and begging and retreating that’s been going on in the back half of this album. Here Meany’s got a handle on his fears, on the things that are killing him, and he’s able to hold on to some glimmer of “hope that the dead is wearing off”. The whole band gets a good workout here, but once again Darren King is the star, with a generous drum solo helping to push the song’s length out past the nine-minute mark, which is startling on an album where the second longest track runs for just over half that time. And then, smack in the middle of all the percussive goodness, comes a moment of eerie calm when Meany’s final words assure us, “The devil is not the nature that is around us, but the nature that is within us”. For a guy who’s been playing it rather vague for the entire record, that comes across as more profound than a lot of the “Christian bands” he’s trying to avoid being lumped together with. This track is a good experiment – it tells you almost everything you need to know about what kind of band Mute Math can be when they’re firing on all cylinders. It might not be my favorite in the conventional sense of the word (I’ll admit to liking some of the poppier songs a bit more), but this is the sort of thing that I hope the band has the spirit to keep trying on future records. it ends the album with a much-needed exclamation point.
These aren’t on the retail version of Armistice here in the states, but have turned up either as iTunes bonus tracks or as extras on foreign pressings of the album. I listen to them after the conclusion of the record most of the time, so Ithought I’d review ’em even though these won’t affect my overall rating of the album.
A track that was presumably recorded during the earlier sessions for the album and then cut, but included on the Spotlight EP that appeared to renew interest in the band earlier this year after a long gap in between albums. I heard them play it live in 2007, so it was my first indication of what their new material might sound like, and I’ve grown rather attached to it for that reason. As with many songs about the passage of time, it has a “ticking” sort of rhythm to it – a fast-paced one, of course, since you’d expect nothing less from Mute Math as they attempt to encourage us to seize the day and not let the sun go down on our grievances. “I know you’d rather sort it out once tomorrow comes”, Meany sings, “But tomorrow already happened.” I love that feeling of the future being bent into the past before you can even realize what’s going on. Add a delicious guitar solo on top of that, and you’ve got a solid song that probably only got cut because the band decided to take Armistice in a different thematic direction. Sonically, it beats most of the album.
This one’s a not-so-convincing attempt one the band’s part to go back into “chill mode”, in sort of the same vein as “OK” from their Reset EP, but in my opinion not as inventive. It sort of trudges along on an acoustic guitar loop and a vague sentiment that “I wanna fly tonight, it’s alright, follow the open sky, it’s alright.” Not exactly the most profound lyrics that Meany’s ever written. There’s also an “Ooh-ooh-ooh” hook that also comes dangerously close to ripping off Coldplay’s song “X&Y”, which is about one of the most lackluster ways I can think of to rip off Coldplay.
Armistice (2nd Line Version)
This remix bumps up the funk level a bit and turns the spotlight on the Rebirth Brass Band, who provides the horn section that turns out to be the very backbone of the song. The rock factor (mainly Greg Hill’s guitar) is toned down a bit as a result, but I enjoy the more streetwise feel of this one. I wouldn’t mind a bit more experimentation in this vein on actual album tracks in the future – I’m normally not a big fan of remixes, but I’d say this one stands head and shoulders with the album version.
So anyway, that’s Armistice. Not the awesome glass ceiling-buster that we were led to expect after the first album, but a disc worth getting into and enjoying for its own unique vibe – even if that vibe can sometimes be a bit of a downer.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
The Nerve $1
No Response $.50
Pins and Needles $1.50
Lost Year $.50
Paul Meany: Lead vocals, keytar, keyboards, piano, bass guitar
Darren King: Drums, programming
Greg Hill: Guitar, piano, backing vocals
Roy Mitchell-Cardenas: Bass guitar, upright bass
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.