Mae – (a)fternoon: We’re still at odds in the middle of the afternoon.

2009_Mae_afternoonEPArtist: Mae
Album: (a)fternoon EP
Year: 2009
Grade: B

In Brief: A flawed, but enjoyable, follow-up to the band’s fantastic (m)orning EP. I’m still excited for (e)vening.

Have you ever made New Year’s resolutions, and done your best to keep them throughout the year, only to be stymied by unforeseen circumstances? The members of Mae must be feeling a bit of the disappointment that comes with the realization of a goal not met as the final days of 2009 wind down. The band began the year with a nifty idea – write and record one song per month, accept a minimum donation of $1 for each song download via their website, and donate the proceeds to charities including Habitat for Humanity and DonorsChoose.org. For folks like me who appreciate the sum more than the parts, they thoughtfully packaged the first four songs (along with a previously unreleased song and a few instrumental tidbit) as an EP called (m)orning, and then planned to follow up with a second EP called (a)fternoon and a third called (e)vening, the last intended to see the light of day at some time around the New Year. This plan was on track up until November, when a trailer containing all of the band’s gear was stolen during their (a)fternoon tour. This gummed up both the recording of (e)vening‘s final songs and the online release of the (a)fternoon EP, which I had been eagerly waiting for, since I wasn’t able to make it to any of their shows to pick it up in person. So it’s only been within the last few weeks that I’ve gotten caught up with the songs that the band wrote during the middle third of the year. As much as I loved (m)orning, I figured it would be worth the wait.

But on my first listen to (a)fternoon, I was a bit baffled. The same mood and some of the same musical motifs from (m)orning were present, but the music was a little more gnarled, the songs more filled with conflict, and the flow a bit more interrupted. (m)orning‘s themes of rest, renewal, and overall zeal for life made for an elated listen as one track flowed brilliantly into the next, defying the expectation of an EP simply being a scattered of collection songs that weren’t quite album material. It was a mini-album in the truest sense. (a)fternoon tries its best to be a sequel, and mostly succeeds in sticking to its theme, but it also shows the seams starting to come apart a bit, as the band’s progressive streak leads them further away from the tightly constructed indie pop/rock songs of their past and moew toward extended, somewhat indulgent instrumental passages. I like some of those extended, indulgent passages, but there are a few points on this record where they sabotage the general feeling of a song, or cause two songs to not sound quite right next to one another. In that sense, it’s a step back toward the usual purpose of the EP – “Here are some songs we wrote independently of one another that we think you fans will appreciate. Enjoy!” Since (m)orning was produced in such a way that it gave the illusions of the songs all working together, this is a bit baffling.

However, if you trim the fat and ignore the excessive bits, (a)fternoon still turns out to be a collection of pretty good ideas that are generally well-executed. Mae knows what they are – a heart-on-sleeve modern rock act operating completely untethered to a major label – and they know they’re not guitar gods or chart toppers or the writers of the next celebrity-heavy charity anthem. So there’s more instrumental interplay than showing off of one particular musician’s prowess, there are more twists and turns than your average pop song cares to take, and songs that were written with charity in mind don’t draw attention to their lofty goals – they’re simply relatable “what went wrong between us”-type songs. The members of Mae know their strengths. Look at this record as a variation on (m)orning‘s themes, and you’ll be best set up to enjoy (a)fternoon. Go in expecting a bold new direction for the band, and you might be a bit disappointed.

INDIVIDUAL TRACKS:

1. Good (a)fternoon
If the opening track gives you a bit of deja vu, that’s because its drum beat and synth notes are meant to revisit the short instrumental passage “Good (m)orning” from the previous EP. Here, the guitars are more electrified, more rocky, not as jazzy. This would be a fine segue into the first song if it didn’t abruptly cut off and take us through nearly two minutes of vague background noise heard when a person walks down a street. While it’s interesting that you can hear faint echoes of the upcoming instrumental track “Falling into You” in the background as if a busker were playing it, this dead stop in the music goes on for way too long, making it much more distracting than similar interludes on (m)orning. Eventually the person walks through a door, and voices saying “Good afternoon” in various languages can be heard, leading us into the first true song.

2. Over & Over
You’ll notice a lot more “grind” to the guitars here as well – not in a heavy metal sense, but they’re definitely going for a less poppy approach, with a somewhat plodding mid-tempo verse and Dave Elkins singing in a low tone of voice. The eagerness of greeting the morning transforms into an afternoon that drags on slowly as Dave sings about a conflict that’s got him and a lover at an impasse. Because they both refuse to compromise, they just go through another iteration of the same loop, and another, and anothr. Surprisingly, the song isn’t quite as repetitive as its title would imply, but it might cross into self-indulgent territory when a funky acoustic guitar lick changes up the rhythm near the end, leading the entire band to join in on a lopsided jam session. I kind of like it, but it feels disconnected from the rest of the song.

3. The Fight Song (Crash and Burn)
Zach Gering
‘s “dirty” guitar sound gets revved up again for a song that flows a little better than the previous one, and which dives more deeply into the arguments that have kept these two people at bay. Dave’s exasperation is quite clear as he cries out in the refrain: “Do you always have to have the last word? Does this end for us with just another crash and burn?” I’m impressed at how this song can be angry, but still contain such colorful elements as keyboards and bongos. Drummer Jacob Marshall is in top form here. The track might run a bit long at seven minutes, especially since the quiet breakdown in the middle (which is filled with background whispers, transcribed in the lyric booklet but honestly impossible to make sense of on the CD) runs on for a while, but when it builds into a somewhat atonal electric guitar jam reminiscent of the Incubus song “Sick Sad Little World”, I guess I can’t complain. The gamble Mae takes in making this song too long for radio play ultimately pays off.

4. In Pieces
If the breezy pace and melody of this track remind you of something, go back and re-listen to “A Melody, the Memory”. This song feels like an intentional reflection of that one, taking its elated description of two lovers working together in perfect harmony and turning it around to describe the dissonance that happens when they don’t get along. The only thing here is that it could be about lovers or it good be about members of a band trying to play their parts and work together, and the dischord that happens when they can’t agree on the creative process. Either way, there’s a more sensitive and forgiving tone here – an olive branch, perhaps extended to the person he couldn’t get along with. It doesn’t quite reach the same joyous heights as “A Melody”, but then it’s not meant to. It’s simply an account of setting things right and starting anew.

5. The Cure
This track feels to me like it goes on forever, even though it’s the shortest of the “actual songs” on the EP. I can’t really get into the languid pace of it – it seems to be going for a jazz/rock vibe, but the pacing keeps getting thrown off by attempts to be clever with the time signature. The lyrics about one lover nursing the other back to health (presumably in an emotional sense) are admirable enough, but the delivery is a bit mushy due to the slow tempo, and the guitar solo in the middle fails to impress because of the shifts from 3/4 to 4/4 and back again. The song isn’t a massive failure, but it’s one case where a song that should probably have taken a simple approach gets sabotaged by the band overthinking the structure of it. The strings are cute, I guess.

6. Falling into You
Wow, where’d this come from? Almost completely out of left field, this delicate instrumental arrives, floating on the ambient sounds of a rainy afternoon, with a hesitant but gorgeous acoustic guitar melody that resounds quite deeply with something inside me that I can’t quite explain. Aside from the foreshadowing in “Good (a)fternoon”, it almost seems to be an odd fit for this EP, but when a band records such a true, un-fussy outpouring of emotion that paradoxically doesn’t say a word, I honestly can’t complain.

7. Communication
The disc’s climax arrives in the form of this sprawling song that plays around with its own tricky rhythm, but otherwise reminds me of “The Fisherman Song” from (m)orning, even referencing that song’s encounter with an old sailor who teaches Dave the meaning of love. Patience and longsuffering are encouraged here, as Dave recounts events from his upbringing, things his parents taught him, that have led him to the view that he holds of how a relationship should work here. I won’t lie, the resulting conclusion throws more than a few cliches our way as we are encouraged, “Communication – it’s calling us, it’s all in us, a celebration for you and me and the universe, our destination”. The fact that they rely on a “la la la” hook to sell us on this point during the last half of the song also feels like they took the easy way out. I’m not opposed to songs that use some of the timeless pop music tricks to hook the listener, but “la la la” hooks tend to work better in more compact pop songs, not seven-and-a-half minute progressive opuses. Sorry guys – there’s a good song at the core here, but you threw too many things at it.

8. (a)fternoon in Eden
Really, guys? You decided to close things out by fading into nearly three minutes of crickets chirping? Thirty seconds to a minute of this would have been more than sufficient, and since “(m)orning Drive” from the last EP had actual music in it before cutting to the sound of birds chirping, it makes this track all the more useless by comparison. I suppose I should be glad they didn’t pull a Neko Case and give us half an hour of this, but still… sheesh.

While it might seem like bad form to complain about the extra material simply intended to function as segues when it’s admirable enough that the band was able to stick to their “song-a-month” schedule and have time for anything extra on top of that at all, I still find myself hoping that the delayed completion of (e)vening turns out to be a blessing in disguise, and that the early months of 2010 give the band ample time to tie up the saga neatly instead of following (a)fternoon‘s disconnected template. I’m still pretty sure the songs will be well-written and intriguingly performed. But I really want (e)vening to be as euphoric of a final thought before bedtime as (m)orning was upon waking.

WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?

Good (a)fternoon $.50
Over & Over $1
The Fight Song (Crash and Burn) $1.50
In Pieces $1.50
The Cure $.50
Falling into You $1.50
Communication $1
(a)fternoon in Eden $0
TOTAL: $7.50

BAND MEMBERS:
Dave Elkins: Lead vocals, guitar
Zach Gehring: Guitar
Jacob Marshall: Drums, piano

LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
http://open.spotify.com/album/54edjxSpAcZZeKKypJlEkm

WEBSITES
http://www.whatismae.com
http://www.myspace.com/mae

Originally published on Epinions.com.

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One thought on “Mae – (a)fternoon: We’re still at odds in the middle of the afternoon.

  1. Pingback: Alt-J – An Awesome Wave: Triangles Are My Favo(u)rite Shape | murlough23

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