In Brief: It’s their most upbeat and optimistic record since their self-titled, but it’s not as musically ambitious as that record or Odd Soul. While that makes it a lesser MuteMath record on the level of Armistice, it’s absolutely still worth a listen.
MuteMath is one of those bands that seems to make exciting, energetic music almost by second nature – though their music can often be busy, it almost never feels fussy or overwrought. Perhaps it’s because their live show has such an air of spontaneity to it even though the electronic-influenced brand of modern rock music they play requires a lot of precision. They’re part machine and part animal, and those two halves seem to elevate each other rather than cancelling each other out. Given this impression that I have of the band, it’s surprising to find out that they would ever second-guess themselves so much that they’d throw out an album’s worth of material and start from scratch. I suppose I’ve got to give credit to a band that is willing to take the harder of the two roads if it means holding themselves to a higher standard, but it makes me wonder how they could go so long until finally realizing they needed to correct course. They’ve done this twice now: First when working on the follow-up to their sublime self-titled album that eventually became Armistice, and again during the comparatively long drought between their 2011 album Odd Soul and their new one, Vitals. In both cases, I obviously haven’t heard most of the stuff they threw out, but I’ve got the sneaking suspicion that I might have liked some of it more than what made the cut for the album they actually released.
Now don’t take that to mean that I think Vitals is a bad album. In some ways it’s a return to form, and when you’re a band whose “form” was so well established on your debut album, it’s understandable how a deviation like the more sprawling song structures and bits of funk influence that cropped up on Odd Soul might not go down as easy with your fanbase. That was a bit of an emotionally heavy album, though I really enjoyed it – even more so than their more accessible earlier albums, surprisingly enough. But it was time for MuteMath to lighten up again, and damn, does this album feel good on first listen. They hit you right out of the gate with sheer optimism, and there’s something about Paul Meany‘s voice and the way MuteMath adds an air of sophistication to their geeky love of synths and keytars and such that sets them apart from the cheesier work of some of their fellow electronic artists. (It helps that nearly everyone in the band is proficient on several instruments and they can all swap roles around as it suits the song.) I’m never gonna roll my eyes at these guys’ happiness. There’s still some honest hardship on a few of these tracks, but overall I’d definitely categorize this as a feel-good album.
The title, Vitals, does sort of clue you in that MuteMath wanted to get back to basics, stripping out the aspects that were excessive or that caused them to realize they might be overthinking things in the studio, and I think that’s both a strong point and a weak point for this album. This record’s singles are some of MuteMath’s catchiest ever, and a few of the mellower songs are among their most beautiful, but then you have a few tracks that just seem redundant by MuteMath standards, not really doing anything the band couldn’t have done in their sleep by now. Honestly, they could have recorded this same album following their debut, and aside from the absence of the longer jam sessions in the middle or end of certain tracks, I wouldn’t have noticed much difference. (There are a few instrumental tracks where they really get to show off, but they’re isolated and don’t feel like an outgrowth of any of the surrounding songs.) It’s not as frustrating in that aspect as some of the more middle-of-the-road material on Armistice, but it’s worth noting. If you’re expecting a radical artistic reinvention, Vitals isn’t gonna do it for you. If you want a recap of the same highs you felt back in 2006 when they debuted to the world at large, then for the most part, you’re in luck.
1. Joy Rides
This song is bottled happiness, pretty much. it’s hard not to smile when they hit you right in those first few seconds with a triumphant keyboard riff, one of Darren King‘s patented speedy drum beats, and Paul Meany shouting “Shay!” (whatever the hell that means – he did it at the end of “Control”, too, and it has pretty much the same effect.) Later they work in the kind of bass that’s so rubbery it could well be a keyboard, and a brief solo from what sounds like a Moog synthesizer. Top it off with an irresistible chorus melody, and it almost doesn’t even matter what the song’s about. Of course you can probably figure out the subject matter from the title. “Let your tears fall off tonight, joy rides on the sun” is how the chorus puts it, and it’s basically a summation of the Psalm that says “Weeping may last through the night, but joy comes with the morning”. I’m not going to pretend that the lyrics offer a profound new spin on that thought, but if there was ever a band that could convince me to shake off my moody funk and get into a much more celebratory kind of funk, MuteMath would be it.
2. Light Up
When MuteMath does love songs, there seems to be this common thread of fighting to keep a longer-term relationship alive. “Equals” and the classic “You Are Mine” are great examples of this, and of course they’ve got the more immediate, “I want you so bad” type songs like “Electrify” or “Prytania”, but generally I find that they do a more elegant job with the former variety. This song has that same feel of a couple working through their struggles over the years, as he tries to remind his lover that while other couples may have broken up or cheated on each other after the ravages of time eroded away their feelings, but he still genuinely lights up for her. It’s a more upbeat track than the earlier examples I listed, so it’s an interesting cross between upbeat energy and emotional sensitivity. I like the crackling beat, the subdued guitar licks, and of course the synths. I’m not as keen on Meany’s staccato delivery of the chorus, which obscures some of his phrasing, and some of the cliched rhymes which seem to retread ideas already discussed in the previous song: “Don’t let the years undo the tears that got us here”. Overall it’s a fun song, but not quite up there with MuteMath’s best.
And then along comes energetic love song #2 – one of the project’s lead singles and certainly a representation of many of the things MuteMath does best, encapsulated in a bite-sized pop song. The bright, sunny keyboards, the thrashing cymbals, and the vocal hook reaching for the stratosphere all rope me in immediately, and of course I’m a sucker for a song that celebrates two lovers hitting the open road, looking to find some adventure and make new memories to cherish for years to come, so naturally this one’s right up my alley. Meany hits some great high notes on this one, and it’s one of those times when I get the nagging feeling that they’re echoing melodies from some old soul/R&B classic that I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s not the first time they’ve tapped into that sort of a vibe, but I love how effortlessly it brings a bit of the 70s into a sound that otherwise owes a lot of its influence to the 80s.
Hey, speaking of the stratosphere… (Yes, obviously I set that one up on purpose.) As it turns out, high up in near-Earth orbit is a lonely place for a man to be, as this very mechanical (but still quite bubbly) synth-based song finds Meany drifting about, trying to figure out how he ended up all by himself at the top of the world, lamenting, “I never meant to have to start all over without you.” It’s a bit of a gut-punch after the past two songs had convinced you two people were gonna beat the odds and be together for life come hell or high water, but I sort of see this one as an ode to the creative process, a realization that they could pursue fame and fortune but lose the joy of pursuing their creative muse in the midst of it. I think the track is expertly constructed – the guitars, bass, and drums all fall into lockstep with the programmed synth loop that repeats throughout, and yet the way they do it feels so organic and full of life.
5. All I See
This ambient track sounds like the kind of thing that they could have ended an album on, and it’s definitely a surprise to hear MuteMath pull out something like this on Side A of an album. It’s basically how MuteMath does the “lead singer solo with an instrument spotlight” thing, with Meany on his keyboard and the rest of the band playing a very muted supporting role, but the melody he plays is a very fluid and engaging one, giving me a peaceful feeling of a quiet stream meandering through the woods as he reflects on all of the beauty and wonder he’s experienced in his life and how it points him back to the face of the woman he loves. (I’m assuming it’s a romantic sort of love song. Often these things are deliberately ambiguous and could take on a more spiritual context if you’re inclined to interpret them that way. I go back and forth, depending on factors that I assure you are 100% arbitrary.)
The title track is an instrumental – a little something to perk up the mood between two of the record’s mellowest tracks, I guess. Meany sings a few “ooh”s here and there, but there are no lyrics to speak of, and it’s mostly a showcase for an infectious drum beat and a bitchin’ keytar solo. While that’s fun, I have to admit I don’t remember a whole lot about the song aside from that solo – it doesn’t have as strong of a melodic hook as the other instrumental on the record, so when I try to recall it later, I always end up thinking of that other track by default.
Unfortunately, Vitals takes a bit of a nosedive at the beginning of Side B, and it takes them three full tracks to recover. This song is the shortest track on the record at just under three minutes, and it’s meant to be ambient and minimal, with its wobbling low keyboards lurking in the background and its slow, teetering rhythm. It plays as a bit of a mantra – Meany’s trying to hang on to his sanity and he credits someone for being a solid emotional foundation when he’s about to lose it: “You keep my head composed/You keep my head afloat/You give this old man hope.” His falsetto is nice and all, but his delivery sounds a bit sleepy, and there’s really nothing that stands out to me instrumentally here. The song feels like it’s mostly a prelude to the single that follows it.
8. Used To
I thought it was pretty cool, the way the fade-out of “Composed” suddenly smacked into the opening of this song without missing a beat. It reminded me of some of the more inspired conjoined song pairings in MuteMath’s discography, like “Stare at the Sun” and “Obsolete”, or “Equals” and “Quarantine”. Unfortunately, that’s about the most exciting part of the song for me, because this track does little to liven up the languid pace that it maintains leading out of the previous track. The rhythm’s a little better defined here, but it still isn’t playing to King’s strengths – only when he inserts a few drum fills that are deliberately pushed into the red and give that slight feel of your speakers not being able to handle all of the low-end does the song approach anything exciting. I get that the song’s about feeling weary and not being able to recapture that old youthful spirit – sometimes a songwriter’s gotta be honest when he feels like he’s just going through the motions, and MuteMath counterbalances this stuff well enough with their more upbeat material that it never feels overly depressing. I’m just honestly surprised that they chose a song this reserved to be one of the album’s singles. Aside from the hand-claps that they inserted to liven up the chorus (which I’ll admit gets stuck in my head: “I used to never feel like – clap clap – I do now!”), I just can’t see this one lighting up a whole lot of radio playlists. (Not that I have high expectations of radio these days anyway – I’m just saying it’s not their strongest material even on the superficial catchiness front.)
9. Best of Intentions
The band returns to more upbeat fare here, but they do it with what might just be the dumbest song they’ve ever written. Occasionally I get the nagging feeling that Meany is writing about some sort of profound personal epiphany that he lacks the vocabulary to communicate within the bounds of a song, and that’s sort of what’s going on here. The overall sentiment of this song is a good one – he’s run himself so ragged from trying to look like the perfect guy that he doesn’t have any problems, that he’s gonna take a step back from trying to solve someone else’s problems and admit that he’s got his own issues to work out. It comes from a place of humility, but the way he communicates it makes it sound more like laziness, like he’s just writing the person off, wishing them the best but not really wanting to get involved. There’s an extremely vague hint of indifference at the Christian music industry they’ve long since bid goodbye and its bad habit of putting musicians on pedestals and expecting them to be these pastoral role models, and clearly Meany and co. have no interest in that, but it’s something they communicated way better on a few of Odd Soul‘s tracks. What turns this from a merely lazy song into an irritatingly dumb one is the main chorus hook – “I wish you the best of intentions, I hope you work it out. I wish you the best of intentions, all the best to you and yours.” Look guys, you have the best of intentions for someone; you don’t wish intentions upon them. You can hope that their intentions are good, but I’m pretty sure you’re trying to say that your wishes for this person are not malicious ones, so the phrasing of the whole thing is just bungled. There’s some good stuff here in between the lyrics – definitely some great interaction between the bass and keyboards on the bridge, which sounds like a few of their favorite funk bands might have inspired it. They should have saved it for an instrumental track, honestly.
OK, back to the good stuff. The second instrumental track is up next, and suddenly MuteMath has got swagger. I don’t know how else to describe that laid-back and yet totally bad-ass drum beat – it’s like they’re nodding their heads at you, going “Yeah, we know we’re cool.” Roy Mitchell-Cárdenas, the unsung hero of a lot of MuteMath songs, is grooving on some really deep bass notes that bring back fond memories of the aforementioned “Stare at the Sun”. While not as trippy as that song or as overtly show-offy as their early instrumental “Reset”, it might actually be my favorite non-lyrical offering from the band thus far. You know exactly what you’re getting from the beginning – a bit of soloing from each band member and then another loop right back around to that spacey keyboard hook. Despite the lack of anything to sing along to, I think it’s one of the most delightful hooks on the entire record.
11. Safe If We Don’t Look Down
We’re back in mellow mode here, with light, shimmering keyboards and a modest sprinkling of guitar, definitely trying to set more of an ambient tone appropriate for assuring someone they’ll make it through that dark night of the soul if you can be there by their side. Since this one doesn’t have as outgoing of a hook as “Light Up” or set a mood as otherworldly as “All I See”, it kind of falls into the cracks where a lot of good-but-not-great mid-tempo material ends up in my mind. Nothing wrong with it per se, but it’s not playing to the strengths I’d normally expect to be emphasized on even a quieter MuteMath song. “Picture” on their self-titled album would be an example of how to do this sort of thing more memorably. I’ll give it a slight edge over the more forgettable material that showed up this late in the game on Armistice, simply because it’s at least optimistic.
I’ve come to expect a lot from MuteMath’s finales at this point. They really haven’t let me down yet, because in their own unique way, each album has closed with a track that emphasizes a slow build up to a beautiful climax (and then breaking it all down to build it back up again, in the case of Armistice‘s epic “Burden”). This one emphasizes a mellow, peaceful keyboard melody at first, and moves forward like more of a conventional power ballad might, which I don’t mean in a bad way, it’s just that it’s a little less of a surprise when they bring the drums and guitar and everything in and make sure to hook us with one last, emotionally charged melodic refrain. “Stall Out” was certainly more out there in this department, but “In No Time” was probably a little more conventional than this, just to give you a gauge for what to expect here. Meany’s sense of longing for an eventual change is probably at its most vague here – “Just keep walking, just keep breathing, just keep holding, just keep believing.” It might as well be friggin’ Journey, but the way that refrain overlaps with the chorus when it comes back around it nothing short of sublime. It’s another one of those songs where you’re meant to relate on a gut emotional level, not so much an intellectual one. So I’m not going to award any major points for lyrics here – once again I’m much more drawn to the way they build up an atmosphere of life and warmth out of what could otherwise be a bed of cold, robotic synths – it shows that these guys understand the way that their neat-o vintage gadgets were meant to be used.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Joy Rides $2
Light Up $1.25
All I See $1.25
Used To $.50
Best of Intentions $.50
Safe If We Don’t Look Down $.75
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, keyboards
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: