In Brief: It took a few listens to fully grasp it, but the weird and wonderful Odd Soul is MuteMath’s best album thus far.
There aren’t many rock bands I can think of these days where everyone in the band provides is so integral part of their sound that losing one member would potentially be painful. It’s just the nature of rock music, or at least in its popular form – the lead singer and the lead guitarist (assuming they are not the same person to begin with) tend to get all of the glory and speak for the band while the other guys dutifully back them up. Bands with drummers who stand out enough that they should be household names seem to be a vanishing breed, while bands with bassists who warrant that level of notoriety have been an exceedingly rare phenomenon from the get-go. Usually if anyone decides to leave a band, lead singers and guitarists are the toughest slots to fill in after the fact. Bands will either breakup or else a good chunk of the fandom will call it quits because things just aren’t the same. But in MuteMath‘s case, I honestly figured that any of its four members departing would seriously upset the balance of the band’s hi-tech yet retro sound. So it came as quite a surprise when they announced earlier this year that guitarist Greg Hill had quit the band back in late 2010. MuteMath is such a rhythmic band, highly dependent on keyboards and electronic noodling and hypnotically catchy drum and bass lines, and yet many of their best loved songs have a defining guitar riff right out there in front – see their breakthrough single “Typical” for the most obvious example. But perhaps it’s because everyone in the band has such a large say in the shaping of their sound that it made sense to soldier on without Greg. Shoot, just about everyone involved can wear multiple hats when needed. So, seemingly without even missing a beat, the three remaining members just looked at them and said, “Can we divide up the guitar parts and get this thing done?”, and they all agreed that they could and that they were committed to seeing the record through. This would-be tragedy turned out to barely even slow them down, and the band’s most experimental and accomplished record to date – Odd Soul – was the result.
Those who have followed MuteMath thus far are likely familiar with the bold claims that the guys made about Armistice when it dropped two years ago, saying it would “embarrass” their first record and eventually realizing they were embarrassed to have said that. For a lot of us, there’s just no touching the self-titled album. It was like the perfect cross between overdriven radio-friendly pop and adventurous instrumental noodling, frenetic at one moment and remarkably chilled out the next, yet never sacrificing their hunger for innovation. Armistice had its fair share of solid singles and subtler songs buried in the mix that would cause my ears to perk up on subsequent listens, however it was a bit of a downer and the record played it too safe by the standards MuteMath had initially established. Odd Soul isn’t out to completely subvert your thirst for catchy tunes or anything, but there’s definitely more of a focus on twisting and bending the established MuteMath sound here, with shifting rhythms and shades of funk here and there and an overall commitment to ensure you can’t predict what’s coming just around the corner. That’s probably the sort of thing that naturally happens when your bassist takes over a lot of the guitar duties, with the drummer and lead singer pitching in from time to time. There are still some catchy guitar riffs here and there, but Paul Meany‘s vocals and we-don’t-care-if-they-sound-loungey keyboards, Roy Mitchell-Cárdenas‘s popping bass lines, and Darren King‘s manic drumming are the stars of the show, while guitars are often used as more a rhythmic instrument (surprise! Okay, not really.)
Lyrically, the band feels rejuvenated too, not completely ditching the downtrodden questions that were so pervasive on Armistice, but definitely rediscovering the sense of joy and peace that pervaded their first album. It’s as if they’ve come to grips with their own weird selves and their awkward balancing act between Christian and mainstream audiences (this being the band that famously sued their label for marketing them as a “Christian band”). Here they’re unafraid to name-drop Jesus in a couple tracks, but it’s more of an acknowledgment of their awkward history with a demanding subculture than anything that’ll make CCM audiences hoot and holler like you just gave a shout-out to their hometown. The result is an honest record that rolls together faith, doubt, guilt, absolution, interpersonal conflict, romance, the unfair expectations of others, and the desire to remain curious and young at heart, all into one ball of wax and to just let that concoction be whatever it turns out to be. Getting a handle on the whole thing will take some time – at first long stretches of it will blur together into a whirlwind of energetic rhythms and chords that can take some work before they coalesce into individual songs that stand out on their own. That’s a blessing and curse at the same time, as some of the less radio-friendly material is designed to flow almost seamlessly from track to track without needing to slam you over the head with its huge identifying riff right away. These are songs built out of the process of taking apart a band’s identity, tinkering with it, and putting it back together again, sort of like a more cerebral and planned-out take on the band’s typical onstage antics during a rousing live performance of “Reset” (which usually finds then literally dismantling their gear and making noises with it in the most unorthodox ways). It’s amazing stuff once your ears and your mind get acclimated.
1. Odd Soul
It’s only fitting that the title track is a bit of an odd start for MuteMath. We’re used them filling in every nook and cranny of the space between the notes in their songs with hyper-precise sixteenth notes and ambient noise, so it’s weird to hear them come up with a song with such a jerky motion to it, all full of stops and starts. I typically classify MuteMath as “electronic rock”, but there’s really not much electronic about this – just a fun jam track with a hint of funk to it, the bass and guitar licks ducking in and out between Darren King’s surprisingly economical drum fills. The lyrics – while they may not rank among Paul Meany’s most profound – demonstrate acceptance with one’s own weirdness, “one of God’s own just trying to find a place to call home”. It’s a statement of identity for a band that, despite finding success, still doesn’t seem to mesh perfectly with mainstream rock or with Christian subculture. Pretty much everyone who hears this track seems to compare it to The Black Keys. Maybe I ought start listening to The Black Keys, then, because I really like this.
This up-tempo love song has a definite swing to its step – I don’t think I’ve heard a drum beat sound this unabashedly happy in a while. Meany’s scratchy chorus celebrates a girl who is “looking like a loaded gun” – dangerous but irresistible. Roy’s lead guitar riff has certainly got something special going on, rattling around in the brain and refusing to let go, and the whole song seems to cheerfully march towards its own impending demise, fully aware of the situation. I’ll use the cliche “like a moth to a flame”, which MuteMath doesn’t actually cite in the lyrics, but they may be hinting at it – look up the word “Prytania” in Wikipedia, and it turns out it’s a genus of moths. You could ignore all of this and just have fun bobbing your head to an irresistible song, of course – they just know this one’s destined to be a crowd-pleaser, so they pull out the stops and give it a couple of victory laps that come crashing back in after the song seems to have ended.
3. Blood Pressure
Don’t let the ominous string intro fool you. As soon as that lead guitar riff comes screaming out and that rolling 6/8 drum beat chimes in, it’s pretty clear that MuteMath has an instant hit on their hands. The song is at once bouncy and incisive, almost passive-aggressively needling a helpless youth who is just trying to measure up to the examples around him. “Why can’t you be more like your older brother? Why can’t you be a little more like Jesus?” Eventually the stress clogs up the circulatory system to the point where the chorus explodes in frustration – the lyrics may be little more than fragments of thought, but they rather aptly describe the disdain these guys now feel for the oppressive subculture they were brought up in. I can relate. And that’s not to knock churches or youth groups or anything – but I know what it’s like to face that dichotomy between being told you’re forgiven no matter what you do and yet being expected to live up to some unattainable conservative behavior code just to please the people who are molding and shaping your mind. That stuff’s mostly hidden in a layer of meaning beneath what little the song has to say on the surface, so once again you could just ignore anything deeper while listening to this song, and just have fun playing the crap out of whatever blunt objects nearby that are available to use as percussion instruments, if you are so inclined. I’m willing to bet that’s what Darren King did when this one first popped into his head.
4. Tell Your Heart Heads Up
A slight misfire here, but nothing too egregious – the track keeps the pace of the album running at full throttle due to the drums and bass that grumble and grind their way through, and the drums just rolling on relentlessly. meany’s lyrics are more spoken than shouted, making this feel like a distant cousin to Armistice‘s “The Nerve”. I suppose that one had to grow on me too, but now I think it’s one of MuteMath’s finest songs and it doesn’t sound as good recast as a hyperactive love song. What’s Meany doing here – basically warning some potential love interest that he’s out to win her over, whether she likes it or not? The rapid-fire lyrics and somewhat atonal guitar parts are fun just for the sounds they make, and the song is kept mercifully short before it finally dissolves into a bit of electronic wigging out, so just look at it as an interlude between sturdier tracks and it’ll fly by without doing anything to drag the album down.
5. All or Nothing
It’s funny that what I think of as “mid-tempo” by MuteMath standards is still quite sonically busy and upbeat by most other band’s standards. This one has more of a mellow vibe, breezing by on a sweet rhythm track with a bit of Meany’s jazzy keyboard ambience and the sort of skeletal guitar work you might find on a Radiohead album, just way poppier, if that makes any sense. Roy’s bass is more fluid, making sure nothing slips through the cracks. The melody instantly brings me back to the relaxing mood of MuteMath’s self-titled album, which is a welcome change from the mostly burdened melodies that Armistice gave us. Even when the track slips off into minimal electronic ambience for a bit, there’s still a sense joy to its rhythm as the keyboards gradually swell up again and finally burst into an 80’s-inspired synth interlude. “Don’t waste a whole life on just a half try”, Meany reminds us in near-falsetto. Somehow I find this more compelling than the last few album’s worth of Switchfoot‘s attempts to make me do something meaningful with my life.
6. Sun Ray
The inclusion of a purely instrumental track that runs for just a minute and change as a lead-in to the following song will probably remind a lot of folks of the self-titled album. For me, this is the odd man out – it’s quintessentially MuteMath with its chill groove and the so-unhip-it’s-hip sound of the vibraphone trying to take us on some sort of space odyssey, and yet since it’s the only such interlude on the album, it feels like an orphaned motif that they never quite follow up on. Having more of these little tidbits between songs would draw less attention to this particular palette cleanser, I guess, but there’s nothing inherently dislikeable about it.
Here we get into the album’s midsection, where admittedly I had trouble telling the songs apart on the first several listens. Isolating this one to give it more attention, it’s a clever little beast, fuzzing the guitars and bass almost into oblivion and pulling off a slick key change up and then back down again right in the middle of its verse. Paul’s motor-mouthed lyrics will probably take you forever to make out without a lyric sheet, but they’re rife with war analogies, apparently centering on the idea that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Here two people admit that they’ve found themselves so hurt and stressed out that they’re “gunning down whatever breathes”, including each other apparently, and Paul seems to want to cut out the friendly fire and choose his battles wisely. Playing this one side by side with Armistice‘s title track would be interesting, I bet.
The organs and the distorted vocals crying out “Laaaa laaaa laaaa!” at the beginning of this one give it a strong psychedelic vibe – there’s nothing subtle about it whatsoever. And it’s kind of a blast for that reason – running Meany’s vocals through some sort of distortion pedal and shifting its rhythm from 4/4 to 6/8, slowing down and speeding up when it dang well feels like it, giving Darren ample space for a bit of a tribal drum breakdown right in the middle. This one’s more of an excuse to jam than any sort of a cohesive narrative, though reading the lyric sheet, one line stands chillingly clear: “Haven’t you sufferened enough on the straight and narrow?” Right before things explode into a huge fit of spontaneity near the end, Meany repeats the mantra “Stand on your own”, and it’s become quite clear that they’ve washed their hands of the self-flagellating ways of their youth.
9. Walking Paranoia
I got confused between this one and “Cavalries” at first because both start off in 6/8 before settling to 4/4. This one sticks with its main rhythm once it’s established, though – and has a bit of fun jerking back and forth in between Paul’s words during each verse. That punctuates the effect of words that you’d probably never expect to hear in a MuteMath song – “I am a nervous wreck/Jesus is coming back/Gonna catch me at the porno rack/I’m about to have a heart attack”. You might take that as a non-sequitur thrown in there for the sake of laughs or as a jibe at religious conservatives, but nope, it’s actually based on a story from Darren King’s childhood, one that left the mark of a guilty conscience for way longer than it needed to. Many of us who grew up Christians have been there in one form or another – make that one misstep that nobody sees and worry that Jesus is secretly watching, waiting to cut you down. In this particular case the guilt did a worse number on the guy than the actual consequences of stumbling across a dirty magazine ever could have. So to me, this is an amusing little song about the futility of getting so preoccupied with sin that you forget the whole point of believing in a Savior. Only within this context could a band straddling the line between Christian and mainstream dare to utter the line “Better get right or get left” and not get rotten vegetables thrown at them for it. It doesn’t hurt that this comes in the midst of a breakdown full of fun little handclaps, of course.
10. One More
One criticism of Armistice was that almost all of the songs fit into compact pop-song lengths and the group didn’t leave the same amount of room for opening a song up and jamming on it that they did on the self-titled. This track may only be five minutes long, but it feels like that’s plenty of space for the band to see what they can do with it, allowing it to march up slowly and subtly but then break open into one of Odd Soul‘s liveliest tracks, full of jittery guitar interludes and Hammond organ and more hand claps… oh yes, the hand claps! They’re dangerously close to whipping up an amount of fervor normally reserved for a Gospel choir when they pull that trick out here. As Meany begs and pleads for someone he’s wronged to give him another change and to believe he’s truly changed, it’s tempting for any of us guys who have been down that path to shout a hearty “AMEN!” in response.
Taking us into the album’s home stretch is this breather track, which is similar to “All or Nothing” in that its melody immediately brings a relaxed, almost seductive atmosphere to break up the otherwise fast and furious pace of the album, but which is different in that it has its own sort of mid-tempo funk thing going on. Even for a sweet song about a man and a woman surviving on a faith in each other so strong that nothing can break it, the band can’t resist throwing odd chords and funky little riffs and Roy’s deep-diving bass notes in there. I can picture this song having an entirely separate life as a doe-eyed love song played completely straight, but I think it’s better off for having been “messed with” to make it what it is. I love that what seems like a bit of harmless fun with hand claps (three songs in a row? Yeah, and they totally get away with it) actually becomes an ingenious, seamless transition into the following song, which is otherwise a complete 180 from this one.
For some, this will be the pièce de résistance of the album, the defining moment where MuteMath ignores all of the conventions and the label suits shaking their heads and just goes for it on an unapologetically bizarre 7-minute voyage. The laid-back rhythm of “Equals” quite suddenly erupts into near-complete chaos right at the beginning, and what little of a tune this one seems to follow is not one that gives itself up easily – Meany seems to be rambling like a madman making up the tune as he goes at first. The group is determined to make the most out of one or two chords, so what this song may avoid in terms of conventional catchiness, it strives to make up for in epic rocking. The guitars get their fair share of solo time, gradually bending and shifting the melody, but it’s the drums that really knock this one into the stratosphere after the long-ish bridge that’s designed to leave you hanging on in anticipation for what’s coming next. All along Meany’s been mumbling about fish out of water and misbehaving children who can’t be let out of your sight and so forth, further cementing this group’s newfound commitment to their defiant weirdness, and then they just drop all pretense of melody, taking on a bit of a drill-n-bass vibe as Darren tumbles forth into a near-seizure of a drum solo, the kind of thing that’s probably three times more awesome live than it already is here. As sweet as that grand finale is, it took me a long time to warm up to this song as a whole, so I’d say that I respect it for going off the beaten path more than I actually love it. Some fans will undoubtedly put it up there with “Reset” or other tracks that are prone to long, free-form jams in concert, and I completely understand that.
13. In No Time
The album closes on a mellow encore, one which comes washing in on soft synth tones that grant the same sense of peace I felt during the self-titled album’s final act (“You Are Mine”, “Picture”, and “Stall Out”). It’s the most electronic piece on the record, resting on droning synth chords and gentle drum programming while glossy ambient sounds gradually build up. The melody’s simple enough that I can just as easily picture it being a pretty moment of simplicity if stripped down to nothing but a piano or acoustic guitar, so I almost wonder if someone in the group first came up with it while alone in a room with a lone instrument, and then the group built up around it and removed the original scaffolding. The lyrics are among MuteMath’s most reassuring, urging us that any innocence lost can be regained, and it stands as a sort of statement that all of this questioning and jabbing at Christian subculture doesn’t constitute a loss of faith, just a desire to strip away the odd rules and conventions that men have attached to it. Armistice sounded so beat down two years ago (even if “Burden” is probably the most stellar thing they’ve ended an album on thus far) that I don’t know if they could have written this sort of a song at the time. Though this a comparatively meek ending, it also offers a sense of closure after that dark period, making sure that Odd Soul, for all of its outbursts and defiant detours, ends on a hopeful and graceful note.
It’s that sense of balance between getting your frustrations out and then breathing in deep and getting over it that makes Odd Soul so refreshing for me. The self-titled and Armistice now feel like two very different sides of the same coin, with Odd Soul unifying the two and finding itself content within the tension between those two identities. It’s for this reason (and for how freaking fun it sounds like it must have been to make) that I consider it MuteMath’s best work to date.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Odd Soul $1.50
Blood Pressure $2
Tell Your Heart Heads Up $.50
All or Nothing $1.50
Sun Ray $0
Walking Paranoia $1.50
One More $1.50
In No Time $1
Paul Meany: Lead vocals, keyboards, guitar, keytar
Darren King: Drums, guitar, keyboards, backing vocals
Roy Mitchell-Cárdenas: Electric and upright bass, guitar, sampling, percussion, backing vocals
Todd Gummerman: Guitar (joined after the album was recorded)
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.