Sony, 2003

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


First things first: this review exists because of Gregory Spawton. The Big Big Train founder/songwriter/bassist sings the praises of Mew at every opportunity, which makes this moment feel somewhat inevitable given my persistent enjoyment of Gregory’s songwriting.

Given that Gregory’s professed favorite band is Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, it’s startling to discover right out of the gate that Mew sounds nothing like that group. Instead, this Danish quartet strikes me as something like an alternate-universe doppelganger of Death Cab For Cutie, if Ben Gibbard had grown up in Copenhagen listening to British progressive rock. Their music is alternately dreamy and driving, winsome and muscular, with an arty patina and melodic grace that lends it all a distinctly progressive bent.

The band’s founding lineup, still intact when Frengers came out in 2003, consisted of Jonas Bjerre (lead vocals), Silas Utke Graae Jorgensen (drums), Johan Wohlert (bass), and Bo Madsen (guitars), with touring keyboardist Nick Watts (among others) guesting on keyboards. This album, their first major-label release, earned them wide praise and an opening slot on R.E.M.’s European tour that year. (The title is a made-up word combining “friends” with “strangers,” as apt a term for the fans of a rock band as any I’ve ever come across.)

For the most part, the songs found here are in the radio-friendly realm of three to five minutes, yet often feel like they contain multitudes. First track “Am I Wry? No” delivers a riffy opening volley full of bounce and mystery, a complex construction exploring a tense yet exhilarating relationship with a beguiling woman. It’s both quite hooky in places and considerably experimental in its serially shifting tempos and interlocking bits, with Bjerre’s airy tenor vocals riding high above the roiling guitars and drums.

Next up, “156” is another tale about a slightly mysterious and perilous object of affection (“You are just like an avalanche”) that gear-shifts repeatedly between dreamy sections and riffy attack. “Snow Brigade” finds Bjerre jumping from normal register to falsetto and back in the space of a single phrase, a prototypical Ben Gibbard move. The music again mirrors this restlessness, intense and driving until it abruptly switches to airy and spacey, before coming back around. It’s a track full of interesting, rather experimental sounds and textures, with a lyric that’s both charming and unsettling (“I’ll find you somewhere / Show you how much I care”).my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

“Symmetry” changes things up, opening with gentle piano chords and guest vocals from Becky Jarrett, before the track resolves into an ethereal, languorous, subtly foreboding ballad with dueling Jarrett-Bjerre lead vocals. There’s a distinct tension in every line of this anti-love song (“Truly with you the worst is always true / I gave you all the benefits of all the doubts I had”). Then the atmospheric mid-tempo portrait of alienation “Behind The Drapes” manages the trick of being both airy and claustrophobic (“Why are we so alone / Even with company?”).

The Death Cab for Cutie aura grows with the next two numbers. “Her Voice Is Beyond Her Years” features lush, airy vocals over driving, shimmery wall-of-sound guitars and a pulsing backbeat. Then “Eight Flew Over, One Was Destroyed” finds Bjerre jumping an octave between words within a single line in that distinctly Ben Gibbard way. This time out the music is dense and moody, with vocals soaring high over the top. Late in this 4:48 number they execute a gradual retreat, pulling the faders back and gently easing out of the song.

“She Came Home For Christmas” and “SheSpider” both start out all quiet, thrummy tension, building until the guitars come smashing in like a tidal wave. These sorts of high-contrast dynamics bring another—influence? parallel?—to mind: Jimmy Eat World. (Is prog-emo a thing, he wonders?)

Saving the best for last, Mew closes out with the suitably epic “Comforting Sounds.” Opening with isolated, chiming guitar and keyboard notes, it pulses along for several minutes under a lyric about alienation and isolation (“Nothing is pure anymore but solitude / It’s hard to make sense / Feels as if I’m sensing you / Through a lens”). Around 3:45 the words run out and the song moves into an extended, hypnotic, melancholy, and increasingly emphatic jam that reminds of Death Cab’s “Transatlantic” in both its emotional tenor and the way it steadily adds texture and drama. Moment by moment the music grows larger like a slowly inflating balloon before it finally crescendos and fades in the ninth minute, closing out a memorable journey.

Another analogue for Mew might be a Scandanavian iteration of Perfect Beings; there’s a certain ethereal, searching quality that both groups manifest in abundance. In the end, though, all of these points of comparison are simply signposts intended to orient the reader in the general direction of the distinct and singular sound created by Mew.

The key to the puzzle presented by Mr. Spawton’s affection for Mew fell into place when I started cataloguing the descriptors that seem to characterize their sound—alternately airy and heavy, gentle and intense, a restless yet genuinely symphonic sound with an undertone of melancholy but also a determined drive capable of pushing the songs to unforeseen heights. Any of that sound familiar, BBT fans?

Frengers is a terrific introduction to Mew, an album of mostly shorter songs (and one memorably long one) with a distinctly progressive bent, full of sharps turns and unexpected tones that give this music a richness and lasting quality that rewards repeat listens. Thanks Gregory; I get it now.

Rating: B+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



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