Friday, August 28, 2009

Into The Woods

Mew – No More Stories Are Told Today I’m Sorry They Washed Away No More Stories The World Is Grey I’m Tired Let’s Wash Away (Columbia, 2009)

Well, that certainly wraps up the ludicrous title of the year award, with bonus points for lack of punctuation. What a shame that such linguistic pretention will most likely alienate this record’s potential audience, for Mew’s excellent, inventive music continues to develop apace. This may well be their warmest, most accessible album but the group’s imagination with rhythm and sound continues to set them apart from most of their peers, placing them firmly in that league of superior, composition-focused rock groups (see also Dirty Projectors, Grizzly Bear, Apostle of Hustle, Three Trapped Tigers etc).

Those with an innate suspicion of ‘intellectual’ rock music might pounce on the angular subdivisions of ‘Introducing Palace Players’ (featuring a style of drumming that is somewhat alien to the rigorous restrictions of indie-rock). They might also be dissuaded by the rather self-conscious reversed weirdness of the opening ‘New Terrain’ and condemn Mew as ‘difficult’. For me, there’s something curiously uplifting in the disjunctive robotic movements of the former and something surreal and disorientating in the textures of the latter.

Whilst this music is certainly meticulously constructed, it’s not without more immediate charms. There’s the insistent pulse of ‘Repeaterbeater’ or the gorgeous summery shimmer of ‘Beach’. Even more off the beaten track is the bastardised samba of ‘Hawaii’, an irresistible confection which seems. Whilst Mew are renowned for their short attention spans, tending to flip between a wealth of ideas, these songs are more notable for their consistent, carefully detailed moods.

The mid-section of the album adopts a more stately pace. The saccharine ‘Silas The Magic Car’ is the one point where Jonas Bjerre’s cutesy, childlike vocals threaten to become an irritation. Much better is ‘Cartoons and Macrame Wounds’, an engrossing and mesmerising epic with a peculiar combination of gentle lilt and emphatic crescendos.

Rich Costey’s production is a significant factor throughout. Having also produced the group’s international debut ‘Frengers’, Costey has played a vital role in defining the distinctive Mew sound, which is sleek and precise. It strikes me that Mew are actually quite close in sonic terms to Muse, another band that Costey has produced, although they are nowhere near as grandiose and they lack Matt Bellamy’s nails-down-a-blackboard vocal histrionics. Perhaps this explains Mew’s modest but fiercely loyal audience – they’ll never break into stadiums in the way that Muse have, perhaps because of the sense of restraint that tempers their otherwise expansive music.

There’s something quietly subversive about Mew’s coupling of mainstream production values with the impulse for adventure. Whilst the album’s title exposes their affectations, there’s also something innocent and charming in their bizarre, almost nonsensical lyrics and delicate melodies. Listening to them is like walking into a fairytale forest – it looks beautiful and enticing but offers unexpected twists and turns in the dark.

Ellie Greenwich 1940 - 2009

‘Be My Baby’, ‘Leader of the Pack’, ‘Then He Kissed Me’, ‘I Can Hear Music’, ‘River Deep Mountain High’, or even the much less cool ‘Sunshine After The Rain’ – it’s an old cliché, but they simply don’t make them like that anymore. All were co-written by the great Ellie Greenwich, who died this week at the age of 68. Theiconic producers behind her biggest hits (Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Phil Spector) are rightly given credit for defining the sound of popular music at that time, but their influence would not have been so pervasive were it not for the quality of the writing of Greenwich and her partner Jeff Barry. Whilst the other husband and wife writing teams of the time, Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill, remain household names, few are even aware of Greenwich’s achievement.

Many of her songs exalted the naïve excesses of adolescent emotions, making them readily identifiable for many. Whilst they were undoubtedly written for a commercial imperative in a rapidly growing market, they also came to define the genuine art of the 2-3 minute pop songs. Here was all the grandeur and feeling of a symphony, compacted into a readily digestible form. The harmonic progressions were necessarily simple, but the formula was always irresistible and endlessly repeatable.

Many will know Greenwich’s best loved songs, even if they are completely unaware that she wrote them. Fewer will have any idea of her own solo recordings as a singer-songwriter, most of which are criminally unavailable. Posthumous it will now be, but a reissue programme would be greatly appreciated.