Mae – (e)vening: Mae says “Goodbye, Goodnight” with whispered songs of hope

2010_Mae_eveningEPArtist: Mae
Album: (e)vening EP
Year: 2010
Grade: C+

In Brief: Good songwriting hampered by subdued arrangements and musical schizophrenia (is it rock or classical?) make (e)vening a mildly disappointing finale for an otherwise great band.

One of my favorite bands, Mae, has effectively issued their swansong. The long overdue completion of a project originally slated to involve the writing of 12 songs in 12 months, (e)vening comprises the final set of recordings in the trilogy started in January 2009 with the first batch of songs for the (m)orning EP. I considered Mae to be a mostly straightforward pop/rock band, though deeply resonant on an emotional level, before (m)orning, which I felt really upped their ante in both the songwriting and musicianship departments. Despite being a mere EP, the band brought this listener to joyous new heights as they seemed comfortable stretching songs out to more epic lengths or taking instrumental detours. This process of going off the beaten path continued on the slightly belated (a)fternoon – a bit of a bumpier ride as it explored themes of conflict and resolution, but still a winner in its strongest moments. They had existed as a three-man band during the making of these records, due to their keyboard player Rob Sweitzer and bassist Mark Padgett leaving after their brief flirtation with the major label world on Singularity. Much to my surprise, the band not only overcame the setback of stolen gear in November 2009 and pushed forward with the new material for (e)vening, but they even managed to re-recruit their former members. As it turns out, this little reunion would be bittersweet, as the ensuing tour would be Mae’s last for… well, we don’t know how long. But I’m treating (e)vening as though it were likely the last thing we’ll ever hear from the guys. I was fortunate enough to catch them on their Goodbye, Goodnight tour last month, and happy to take home this final piece of a 2-year project as a memento of that memorable night.

Mae fans, you might want to brace yourselves, because I’m going to be a bit of a downer here. (e)vening simply doesn’t live up to expectations. I thought (a)fternoon was a scattered mess at first and only came to appreciate it after I was able to separate the songs (and one glorious instrumental piece) from the other sonic pieces that didn’t quite seem to fit. It had ambition. (e)vening seems to lack that ambition, at least in terms of the fully formed songs that the band wrote for the record. It’s certainly true that the return of Rob Sweitzer brings Mae back to more of a piano-oriented sound, which is honestly something they haven’t explored much since The Everglow, which pretty much everyone who likes Mae seems to agree is their best record. Nostalgia for The Everglow (notably the most featured record in setlists for their final tour) is probably causing some of those folks to receive (e)vening more warmly than I personally did. But for me, it just doesn’t have the same amount of cohesion, or that feeling of going through a journey while listen to it. It might be unfair to compare an EP to an album, but that’s where I’ll point to (m)orning, a record which could well have dethroned The Everglow if extended to full album length. Where that record seemed almost boundless with ideas, the songs on (e)vening feel restrained – the few “rockers”, if you could call them that, are mid-tempo, the song structures much more straightforward, and only at the end of the record does the musicianship approach epic. In between these songs, we get… very quiet piano musings from moonlighting drummer Jacob Marshall. Say what?

Now I know some Mae fans will want to string me up for saying this, because Marshall turns out to be a surprisingly talented pianist and composer, and it is rather heartwarming that the band would give him a full three tracks’ worth of space to tell a wordless story right in the center of their final record. I can’t deny that he’s good at what he does. But there’s no sense of continuity that my ears have picked up on between these solo instrumental pieces and the song surrounding them. It’s like flipping to a completely different artist mid-stream, on a record that is already short on time due to being an EP. None of it’s bad… it’s just a little weird. It makes (e)vening more of a curiosity to me than a satisfying farewell. It’s kind of like what happens when one of your favorite action-packed TV series ends with a highly unusual episode that take a noticeably somber detour. it might be well-written, perhaps even worthy of an Emmy… and yet it’s just not your show.

INDIVIDUAL TRACKS:

1. A Quiet (e)vening
Each EP has opened with a short, mood-setting instrumental with variations on the same musical theme. Complimenting the upbeat intro track from (m)orning and the more snarled, angry version on (a)fternoon is this reflective piano instrumental, which for the most part is unique from the other two due to being so quiet and spacious, but which echoes the familiar six-chord refrain from the other two at one point. I’m not sure whether Jacob or Rob played this one.

2. Bloom
A steady, but mannered drum beat introduces this gently melodic song, which is probably the poppiest thing on (e)vening and would be a single if Mae still had any hope of getting noticed by radio. None of this is a criticism on my part – the piano rings out with warmth, there’s a bit of subtle rhythmic deviation just to keep it from falling prey to the “Coldplay plod”, and the mood is altogether encouraging. It’s a song about struggling somewhere between faith and doubt, but having the courage to work it out honestly and believe that “Love will find a way to bloom”. In a way, this dovetails the theme of resolved conflict that closed out (a)fternoon with the more spiritual leanings of (m)orning (especially when boats and sailing are referenced in the first verse). I haven’t completely fallen in love with it, but I find a bit more sentimental warmth within it each time I listen – it’s like a more relaxed track that could have bridged the gap between more intense pieces on The Everglow. It works better on the album than it did as an opener on Mae’s tour, where it seemed a bit lackluster in comparison to the rockier material they’ve opened with previously.

3. I Just Needed You to Know
This guitar-driven tune keeps the tempo decidedly on “medium”, which in my opinion sacrifices any bite that it might otherwise have. I get that it’s a sweet love story, not meant to be a big, huge, snarling rocker or anything. But just listen to how “A Melody, the Memory” took flight on (m)orning – this seems so stubbornly ordinary in comparison! The song tells of a lesson learned about patience by a young man who just could not wait to see his lover again – even to the point of speeding and other cute but slightly reckless behaviors. She is his constant, the one who gets him to slow down and appreciate the beauty instead of being in a rush to get to the next big goal. he eventually gets there, and it’s sentimental as all hell, and that’s not a bad thing. But the music is too workmanlike to fully support the story, so I only sort of get into this one.

4. My Favorite Dream
Here we go again – another unabashedly sentimental song deprived of its instrumental power by a lackluster arrangement. I normally like it when Mae goes acoustic. They don’t do it that often, but it usually produces lovely results (think the unplugged version of “Sun” or the breathtaking instrumental “Falling into You”). Here, it’s like absolutely everything is muted – the acoustic guitar is rather weakly strummed, Dave Elkins‘ vocals sound anemic, and all we get from Jacob’s drums is a constant dull thumping. Little bits of strings and glockenspiel try to romanticize the mood, lifting my spirits slightly as Dave describes his lover as a dreamlike vision that keep cruelly departing from him. A chorus that starts with such a line as “There she goes at the speed of sound” deserves a more dynamic arrangement, doesn’t it? I have no problem with the sentimentality – it’s actually one of my favorite things about Mae. I just can’t figure out why they seem so hell-bent on subduing every arrangement on this disc.

5. Seasons: I. Departure
The first five minutes of Jacob’s solo piano suite are fully reserved and reflective. The liner notes actually further subdivide each piece into several sections, with pretty names like “The Color of Time” or “Golden Afternoon” and timestamps to delineate where a shift in the melody indicates a new musical thought. The pleasantly unassuming melodies don’t resonate strongly enough for me to notice at first that there is a main theme that will be revisited later. The pace picks up ever so slightly with the final segment, “A Colder, Darker Wind”, which transitions into the next track so seamlessly that you’d never think of any reason to divide them here.

6. Seasons: II. Initiation
The second segment is a bit more schizophrenic, slipping into quieter segments that briefly flirt with minor key. There’s a brief segment called “By the Fire” where the piano suddenly comes crackling to life, with a cascade of high notes trickling down in a display of both precision and emotion. I might be picking up a darker-hued refrain of an earlier passage near the end – the title “Memories/Looking Back” seems to suggest this. The following sections, “Death Is Sleep” or “The Bridge”, take more of a somber turn. I feel like the apparently intended drama could have been more fully realized if instruments other than the piano had been allowed to play supporting roles here – not necessarily the traditional rock ensemble, but just something to help the piece well up with emotion where it seems to want this.

7. Seasons: III. Return
Alright, now I’m really starting to pick up on the re-use of that main theme – it’s briefly quoted again as this third segment begins. Being the release of the emotion previously built up, this is where most of the showing off happens, as phrases like “Morning Glory” and “Bloom” hint at in the booklet – lots of rolling strings of notes spilling out like a rapturous flood. A final section called “Full Circle” brings us back to where we began, just as expected. I can catch glimpses of the cycle of death and rebirth encapsulated in the seasons that Jacob was trying to describe with this piece. But I still feel like, without anything at all to accompany him, it’s easy to miss the intent and just hear a lot of pretty but somewhat aimless noodling on the piano. Perhaps in the context of a solo record written for the express purpose of communicating a story entirely with the piano, it would make more sense. Because it’s Mae, though, I find myself wishing at least one or two other band members could have contributed.

8. Sleep Well
This is the best song on the record, and yet, if you were to listen to this track all by its lonesome, it would be a disappointment. That’s because it’s merely the first half of a two-part grand finale. Calm, even strokes on the guitar and a barely audible vocal from Dave are gradually joined by drums, backing vocals, and a bit of keyboard magic – the buildup comprises the song proper, as Dave wishes us a fond trip off into Dreamland with subtle hints at bits of wisdom gained in some of the preceding songs in this series of EPs. It’s not quite a final summation, but more of a statement that here’s what we’ve been through and now all is at peace. For once, Mae’s simplicity is stunningly effective – but we’d feel robbed of the payoff if we separated this track from its conjoined instrumental piece.

9. Good (e)vening
At long last, here comes Zach Gering‘s big electric guitar – an instrument which has only had brief moments in the spotlight for the entire EP. The notes he plays are simple and repetitive, but effective – a majestic sequence intertwined with a stately string section, which gnaws at the memory as it seems to suggest something strangely familiar, until that melody comes tumbling down into a blatant reprise of the end theme from (m)orning‘s “The Fisherman Song”. I have a pretty deep attachment to that song, so for me, there couldn’t be a more perfect way to end things. It’s interesting that this entire EP has been about the hours after sunset, when crickets chirp and people get ready for bed and all falls quiet – and yet the ending, presumably the part that takes place inside the dream after one has fallen asleep – is loud and confident and full of emotional fireworks. Part of me likes to think, as the strings carry the song through its final minute and it ends up on one last, resolute piano chord, that this is the dream which brings us full circle, the whisper of an idea in the middle of the night that inspired the pre-dawn drive down to the beach which led our protagonist to complete “The Fisherman Song”.

However you interpret (e)vening, I’m glad that it ends with a rousing farewell that leaves me a bit misty-eyed as I prepare to say my final “goodbye, goodnight” to a band whose music has been so formative in the last five years or so of my life (since The Everglow – I’m only now going back to fully appreciate their debut Destination: Beautiful). I can look past the mistakes to see that this group came up with mostly winners, even when they were panned for having too synth-happy or mainstream of a sound on Singularity, and had to abandon their quest for mainstream success and scale back to the smaller, but more admirable goal of recording songs independently with a lot of the proceeds going to charity. I admire the spirit and determination they’ve shown through it all. And while I’m treating this like it is truly the band’s final chapter, there will always be a special place in my heart and on my hard drive for them, should the sun ever rise anew on another cahpter of the Multi-Sensory Aesthetic Experience.

WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
A Quiet (e)vening $.50
Bloom $1.50
I Just Needed You to Know $.50
My Favorite Dream $.50
Seasons: I. Departure $.50
Seasons: II. Initiation $.50
Seasons: III. Return $1
Sleep Well $1
Good (e)vening $1
TOTAL: $7

BAND MEMBERS:
Dave Elkins: Lead vocals, guitars, piano, organ, percussion, drums, programming
Zach Gehring: Guitars, percussion, glockenspiel, backing vocals
Jacob Marshall: Drums, percussion, piano, backing vocals
Rob Sweitzer: Piano, Fender Rhodes, backing vocals
Mark Padgett: Bass, ring synth

LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:

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

Originally published on Epinions.com.

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