Sunday, December 20, 2009

Mae: (A)fternoon

I wanted to like (A)fternoon. Really wanted to. For lots of good reasons.

First, Mae is one of my favorite bands of all time. I'd proclaim them among my favorites on the strength of The Everglow alone, but then I'd be ignoring a strong debut in Destination: Beautiful and a pretty decent EP in (M)orning. The thing about any band, though, is that to remain in favorite-band status, you have two choices: 1) release more material that is good, or 2) take the George Costanza approach and quit while you're on top. Since Mae has opted out of the second option, it's especially important that the follow-ups to their earlier brilliance are worth something.

Second, the music that Mae is producing now is critical to developing some sort of trend for the band's future direction. Destination: Beautiful was good to great. The Everglow approached perfection (trend: upward). Singularity was forgettably average at best (trend: downward). That meant that whatever Mae put out immediately thereafter would essentially serve as a harbinger of the quality of Mae's future material. If it was consistently good, then Mae could write off Singularity as an uninspired blip. Consistently bad, and Mae was essentially admitting to us that they'd run out of gas after their magnum opus.

(M)orning, in turn, was good again (trend: upward). (A)fternoon also being good would go a long way toward establishing the promise of good Mae for years to come. (A)fternoon being bad again, on the other hand, would mean that all bets are off, and that Mae really has no idea what it's doing, throwing out genius, tepidness, and everything in between with no consistency.

Third, (A)fternoon is the same album as (M)orning. Seriously. Compare the track lists:

  • Track 1: "Good (name of EP)", a track that mixes a little music with assorted noises ("Good (M)orning", "Good (A)fternoon")
  • Four tracks that corresponded to the songs sold for charity in that part of the year ("The House that Fire Built", "Boomerang", "A Melody, The Memory", "Night/Day"; "Over & Over", "The Fight Song (Crash and Burn)", "In Pieces", "The Cure")
  • An instrumental track that more or less followed from one of the charity tracks ("Two Birds" from "Boomerang"; "Falling into You" from "The Cure")
  • A seven-minute-plus experimental track that may or may not feature the same Jesus figure ("The Fisherman Song/We All Need Love"; "Communication")
  • and Track 8: another one with the name of the EP that's mostly noise rather than music ("(M)orning Drive"; "(A)fternoon in Eden")

Obviously, the songs aren't the same at all, but the structure of the albums is so close together that by this point, comparisons are inevitable. And if you're going to make essentially the same album twice in a row, the second iteration better be at least as good as the first, or those inevitable comparisons are going to be overwhelmingly negative.

My friend and mock trial mentor Kyle told me that there are two ways a mock trial round can end in a blowout. The first is that one or two critical parts of your case just fall apart: your opener opens for the wrong side, your star witness forgets his testimony, your expert is torn apart by a masterful cross. The second, much less devious, but equally as dangerous, is when the one team is a notch better in everything that it does: the directs are a touch more conversational, the character witnesses are just slightly more entertaining, the closer is a hair more impassioned.

And unfortunately, that second scenario is the tragedy that befalls (A)fternoon. I'll start with the high points: "In Pieces" and "The Cure" can stand up to anything on (M)orning, and I'll go out on a limb and say that with the possible exception of (M)orning's "The Fisherman Song", "In Pieces" is Mae's best track since The Everglow. The opening and closing tracks are meant to be interesting bookends, nothing more, and the two EP's are about equal in that respect. (A)fternoon goes downhill from there.

"Two Birds", (M)orning's lead-out instrumental track, was a pleasant surprise, playing off the strengths of "Boomerang", but becoming an interesting track in its own right. "Falling Into You", on the other hand, is totally unrelated to "The Cure", plus it manages to be wholly cliche and uninspiring at the same time. "Communication" is miles behind "The Fisherman Song", which is especially disheartening, because I hailed "Fisherman" as salvation for Mae: a promising new direction that incorporated the earlier style and emotion while managing to be something completely different. "Communication" falls flat by (again, inevitable) comparison: the narrative is nowhere near as compelling, the instrumentation less passionate, the message less exultant. "The Fight Song" is a regrettable example of why Mae should not play around with distortion and free-from guitar soloing.

But my biggest gripe with (A)fternoon is a series of just four notes. That may seem petty and insignificant, but it's a complaint that's been brewing ever since Singularity. It's unfair to pick on "Over & Over" by itself for this gripe, but it shows up most insistently and dramatically on "Over & Over", so I have little choice. It's a musical issue, so the less-exposed to music theory may be less bothered by it than I.

Get to a keyboard, and try this out. (Feel free to click the "notes" and "sharps/flats" buttons if you like--I certainly had to.) Play the following sequence of notes: B flat-A flat-G-F. It should feel like it's resolving melodically, because it is: it's the bottom half of the descending F-minor scale. Mae starts "Over & Over" using this motif in the chorus, and it sounds fine. Actually, it sounds pretty cool, especially with the chords that's being played on top of. (I don't know quite enough music theory to recognize those chords by sound!)

Now, try this. Play the sequence B flat-A flat-G-A; that is, use the same first three notes, but change the fourth to an A. It sounds odd, right? That's because it's really nothing other than an awkward way to change from major to minor tonality. There are probably dozens of ways to do this that other musicians have thought of. Picardy is an especially famous one. Mae's method--which, I assure you, did not start with "Over & Over"--is probably the clumsiest that I've ever heard.

Does one bizarre musical miscue derail Mae's entire career? It does derail "Over & Over"--which, again, started as a pretty good song--and we all know the adage about losing the war for want of a nail. But no, B flat-A flat-G-A does not spell the end for Mae by itself, especially not with the other weaknesses that plague (A)fternoon. It does, however, represent the Singularity-style pitfalls that the (E)vening EP must desperately avoid if Mae wants this "temporal EP" experiment to represent a positive future for the band.

I'll eagerly await early next year, which is when I assume (E)vening will be released. I'll hold out hope that the temporal EP's follow the trilogy curse, and that the middle volume will turn out to be by far the weakest. (Imagine reading The Lord of the Rings and stopping at The Two Towers, or worse yet, reading The Two Towers by itself.) Until then, though, your best bet for 2009-era Mae is by far (M)orning.

Currently listening: "Child's Prayer", Chicago, from the Christmas album

1 comment:

Alli Quattlebaum said...

hey. the reason (a)fternoon is so similar to (m)orning is because of mae's style. they tell stories with their music. it's all interconnected. the same chord progressions and melodies. for a reason. think about it before you judge it. personally, i appreciate "communication's" sound, i believe that they were going for something quite different than "the fisherman song" to set it apart, yet keep similarities in lyrics and allusions. same goes for the fact that "the cure" does not have anything to do with "falling into you." it separates (a)fternoon from (m)orning, however subtly.