In Brief: A rough draft of the sound that Mae would later perfect. The Everglow‘s still their best album, but it’s worth going back to see how it all began.
Sometimes it’s hard for me to remember that Mae existed before The Everglow. The storybook narrative of that album made it one of the finest pop/rock releases of the last decade, making up in thematic scope for what it might have lacked in stylistic distinctiveness. Whenever an album gets me that hooked on a band, I generally try my best to check out the past works that led up to that point in their career, and in Mae’s case, all that existed other than a smattering of B-sides was their modest debut album, Destination: Beautiful. Self-produced and released on Tooth & Nail Records in 2003, it’s one of those albums that I remember getting some degree of acclaim at the time, but that I could never quite seem to get into no matter how much I went back and tried to find new appreciation for it.
It wasn’t until the band decided to call it a day, and to give many of this album’s songs a final spin on their farewell tour in late 2010 that I realized I should have taken the time to get to know them a little better. Despite its sometimes tinny, undercooked sound coming nowhere near the robustness of The Everglow or their lone major-label release Singularity, there was a bit of musical diversity here that wouldn’t be really heard from the band again until their final trilogy of EPs came around at the end of the decade. Several of the fan favorites that the live audience had eagerly sung along to while I stood there realizing I was missing out have now become personal favorites of mine as well, even though they’re admittedly sandwiched between some rather generic alt-rock numbers that do about as much for me as the low points of a Jimmy Eat World album. Destination: Beautiful is flawed, but it’s also a worthwhile document of a band willing to try lots of different things in its infancy. The Everglow still dominates it, but whenever this album comes out with a lovely acoustic riff or piano passage or off-kilter time signature switch that The Everglow didn’t attempt, I’m reminded of its vital place in Mae’s short but sweet discography.
1. Embers and Envelopes
Mae started their career off with one of their most emotionally striking songs, and also one of their catchiest. It’s hard to do both at once, but this is something that the band generally excelled at. Lead singer Dave Elkins laments a relationship that is in shambles, and describes the act of writing a letter as the first step towards reconciliation. Whatever the conflict was, he makes it clear that restoring the friendship means more to him than being right: “We write to patch things up/Maybe not to agree, but to proclaim love”. Despite the band’s self-production siphoning away some of the band’s rhythmic edge, they lock together quite tightly for the chorus, which easily stands out as the same sort of optimistic anthem as some of my personal favorite Mae songs from later albums, such as “Anything”, “Suspension”, or “A Melody, the Memory”.
2. This Time Is the Last Time
Shifting into acoustic mode at only the second track is an interesting diversion – Elkins and lead guitarist Zack Gehring would come up with some exciting arrangements in this mode later on, but it wasn’t part of the “typical Mae sound”, which tends to be more electric. The entire first verse of this song plays almost like an unplugged version of a long-lost original (the Destination: B-Sides collection offers some hint of what it might have sounded like in that format), with a more traditional rock arrangement kicking in at the chorus, but still using the acoustic guitar to provide the main riff and a good amount of the song’s forward momentum. As if flashing back in time to a point before the two wronged parties were willing to reconcile, “This Time” uses its syncopated, start-stop rhythm to describe a man who can’t take the blame for his own social blunders. Elkins advises him – perhaps somewhat sarcastically – to get the heck out of Dodge while the gettin’s still good: “You can exit out the back and make your getaway/Before anyone can see the damage you have done.” His voice almost reaches a raspy shout as the repeating chorus grows increasingly more frustrated, which is unusual given the more laid-back musical approach. This one’s not quite a classic in my book, but it’s grown on me ever since I started digging deeper into it.
3. All Deliberate Speed
Jacob Marshall’s cymbal-heavy drum beat in this song is one of those rhythms that just gets me pumped. Between that and the delicious electric riff that Gehring paints around it, Elkins sounds almost too small for the band he’s fronting, which is probably more of an issue of mixing than of his actual vocal ability. To tell the truth, I always enjoyed this song purely for the music and never paid much attention to the lyrics – which convey the escapist sentiments that seemingly every young rock band must write a song about: “We could, drive and, we could take our stuff on out of here/Well, we’ll leave with the sunrise/This place, and this city, it’s good for nothing but feeling down/Well let’s say, we’ll break it.” The unconventional structure is what saves it – the song has a capable enough chorus, but it’s the interlocking rhythms of the pre-chorus (the guitars in 6/4 while the drums stick to the same unforgettable riff that started the song off) and the growing tension of its climactic coda that really make it stand out. It never really returns to its chorus after the bridge, and it doesn’t need to, because this song is all about hitting the accelerator and not looking back. This one was an early indication that Mae could craft catchy pop/rock songs that would resonate as fan favorites years later, without always needing to conform to the expected length or format of a radio single.
Unfortunately, there are several tracks on this album where Mae took an entirely conventional approach, with ho-hum results. This is the first such track, opting for a straight-ahead and wholly unremarkable melodic rock sound, with vague and amateurish lyrics that seem years behind what the band came up with in the first three tracks. Nothing about it is overtly embarrassing – it’s just one more song about getting in the car with someone you love and driving away at top speed from whatever ails you. Nearly every line seems to end in a couplet that could have come from the most basic rhyming dictionary, and nothing about it really sets the band apart from any of their contemporaries, so this is the first of a few tracks that I’m often tempted to skip.
The quality level suddenly takes a huge jump for this song, quite possibly Destination: Beautiful‘s best track, which hints at Mae’s more progressive side with its shuffling verse and its sudden rhythmic shift as they segue effortlessly into one of their most hopeful and addictive choruses. Elkins is quite the motor-mouth during the verse, almost as if his thoughts about his own messy life are just incoherent mumblings as he tries to make sense of his own train of thought. When it finally solidifies as the harmony vocals join in on the words “useless ruckus”, that’s when the band shifts to an irresistibly bouncy triple meter for the chorus. It’s almost a series of non-sequiturs, but it’s also a compelling invitation for fellow navel-gazers to get over themselves: “Waiting for the rain to stop/Destination: beautiful/Seems that I’m still waiting for the sun/Someday will come back to us/If you’re willing, let it go/Why won’t you just let this be your sun?” Sealing the deal are the two solo sections in the song’s bridge and coda – first Gehring and Elkins gets a lovely acoustic duet before the final chorus chimes in, and then keyboardist Rob Sweitzer gets to cap the song off with a pristine piano solo. All of these disparate elements would make the song a hodgepodge in the hands of most young and overly ambitious rock bands, but somehow Mae manages to pull it off and create a song that fans would excitedly scream for at their shows.
6. Last Call
I’m only nominally interested in this up-tempo but clumsy rocker, which threatens to run themes already explored in “All Deliberate Speed” and “Runaway” right into the ground, once again focusing on escaping stifling small-town life and chasing one’s dreams and so on and so forth. The first verse is marginally interesting for no other reason than a humorous musical metaphor: “More out of place than anything you know/Like an opera at a disco/When all you wanted was a rock show, tonight.” If the song actually dabbled in the sort of genre roulette it described, perhaps it might be more interesting (or perhaps it would just be conspicuously disastrous – either way, I’d have appreciated them taking some sort of risk here). A pedestrian chorus that doesn’t do much to differentiate itself from about ten other emo-pop bands that were popular in those days isn’t helped at all by the weak background vocals that chime in with half-hearted “Oh-oh-oh!”s as if they’d just stumbled out of a Jimmy Eat World recording session. Once again, there’s nothing glaringly bad about this song… it’s just generic.
7. Skyline Drive
Speaking of Jimmy Eat World, you know how those guys have a tendency to bring their albums to a screeching halt with one or two long, slow, and bewilderingly methodical ballads that seem like they just don’t know how to end? This is Mae’s version of such a song. It’s quite possibly the worst one in their discography. It aims for a sensitive mood, trying to recreate the wonder of a scenic drive taken on a starry night. I’m pretty sure this track got its name from a road that runs the length of Shenandoah National Park in the band’s native Virginia, and it looks like a beautiful place that I’d love to experience for myself someday. But the song doesn’t do its namesake justice, as it doggedly clings to its tired, mechanical rhythm throughout, offering little in the way of thoughtful asides or adventurous musical meandering. They’re trying to elicit an emotional response to this story of two lovers who aren’t quite in the mood due to something awkward one of them said or did, by taking us on this long, slow journey, but it’s all forced crescendoes and soulless miming of musical tropes that they’re not yet experienced enough to know how to play with. The gap in quality between this album’s best and worst songs is striking, almost as if they recorded their first few cuts, took about a year off while some of the bands they were touring with took them to school, and then came back to record much stronger material. If Destination: Beautiful could be trimmed down to an EP, while banishing some of its lesser cuts such as this one to some super-rare demo disc released before they were even signed, I think I might be a lot happier with it.
8. Soundtrack For Our Movie
No matter what I do, I seem to have a tough time remembering how this one goes, because while it’s a punchy enough little power pop number, it’s unfortunate enough to come up in the track listing right before a song that sounds quite similar to it, but is about ten times better. The riff, rhythm, and general feeling of this one once make it sound like an earlier version of a song that the band hadn’t quite figured out how to nail, and other than a snappy synth solo by Sweitzer midway through, I can’t think of much that differentiates its longing to take someone special for a car ride (is there a single song on this disc that isn’t obsessed with driving?) and its meta discussion of the role music plays in the development of a relationship from several songs where Mae has done all of these things far more convincingly.
Along comes this track, and suddenly “Soundtrack” is rendered completely unnecessary. Its muscular riff pulls a trick similar to the one heard in “Sun”, changing up the rhythm for a bit of a bumpy ride, but here it’s done more aggressively, making it one of D:B‘s loudest rockers. It was a definite crowd-pleaser throughout the band’s career, and despite running the risk of being thematically repetitive (driving away to enjoy the company of a loved one in sunny weather again?), I can’t really fault this one for the band’s failure to cut the fat elsewhere. Once again, it’s a strong example of the band’s knack for blending power pop with a slightly progressive arrangement, and the results are quite likely to have listeners miming the rhythm guitar while trying to keep up with the changes. (Or just shouting along with the energetic chorus. Or playing air drums. Basically this one just makes me want to be in a band. I’m not picky about what role I play in it.)
10. Giving It Away
Another track that runs the risk of being too slow and methodical to really work is saved by a mesmerizing keyboard loop from Sweitzer that immediately gives it a sort of romantic, nostalgic quality. It’s like they took the Jimmy Eat World song “Hear You Me” and made it several times sweeter, but remembered to give it some gravity by tackling the big question of what it means to love unselfishly. Elkins sings tenderly, like he’s found himself at a special place and point in time that he knows he may never experience again, and someone he cares deeply about is finally opening up to him, offering him the chance at a deeper love than he’s ever known before, but he knows that accepting it means fundamentally changing who he is as a person. It could be seen as a leap of faith, though I’m not exactly sure which kind of relationship he’s describing here (Mae tends to be deliberately ambiguous about this sort of thing at times). This all builds to a captivating crescendo in which different vocal parts are overlapping and the swaying rhythm of the song washes over the listener like the motion of gentle waves. At times, I think that the acoustic demo of this one heard on Destination: B-Sides is actually a better version because the electronic keyboard is replaced with a piano and the rhythm of it is less rigid. But this is a fuller and more climactic arrangement. Either way, this would have been a beautiful note on which to end the album. However…
11. Goodbye, Goodnight
We finish with this confused muddle of a song, which stumbles toward the finish line as it tries to tie together some of the album’s vague storylines. Thematically, it makes sense to put this together, since fond memories are contrasted with the bittersweetness of an unknown future as this person who Elkins can’t quite seem to see eye to eye with decides to go their own way. The letter mentioned in “Embers and Envelopes”? That’s been returned to sender. The life-changing encounters on still, starry evenings mentioned in “Skyline Drive” and “Giving it Away”? They’re now relics of a place he can never return to. It’s a bit of a painful ending, but he’s resolved to pick himself up and take the lessons learned and move on. Lyrically, this all works out just fine. Musically, the band didn’t seem to know how to wrap things up, as the rhythm of it sort of hurtles forward half-heartedly, running through a few verses and a bridge which all seem to have their own self-contained mood, but which end up making the song feel disjointed and directionless. It’s not exploratory enough to make a strong artistic statement, but it’s not unified and straightforward enough to work as a punchy pop song, either, so it just hangs out there in the ether – the place where all forgettable songs are eventually banished. Honestly, I don’t think Mae had really figured out how to end an album until their career was almost over – The Everglow‘s “The Sun and the Moon” was more climactic, but dragged on a bit too long, and Singularity‘s “Reflection” seemed bound and determined not to come to an obvious climax. Neither were bad songs, though. Both have more finality, and are more enjoyable, than this track which seems to sail by without much of a warning that this is actually the end of the album.
I find it sort of funny that Mae actually named their final tour after “Goodbye, Goodnight”, but didn’t bother (at least when I saw them in late 2010) to actually include the song in their setlist. That’s sort of a hint that a lot of the ideas expressed on this album hold up better to the old nostalgia filter than the actual songs do. And Destination:Beautiful is sort of a microcosm of how I’ll remember the band – as a group of musicians who certainly knew how to make a first impression, but who never quite figured out the best way to say goodbye.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Embers and Envelopes $1.50
This Time Is the Last Time $1.25
All Deliberate Speed $1.50
Last Call $.50
Skyline Drive -$.50
Soundtrack For Our Movie $.50
Giving It Away $1
Goodbye, Goodnight $.25
Dave Elkins: Lead vocals, guitar
Zach Gering: Guitar
Mark Padgett: Bass
Jacob Marshall: Drums
Rob Sweitzer: Keyboards, backing vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.