Welcome to the first of many to come articles which I like to call Left of the Dial, where I talk about artists that either don’t get the recognition they deserve, or had their moment in the spotlight cut way too soon. Tonight I shed some much needed light on one of the most criminally overlooked bands in the world right now, a little band from Denmark called Mew.
I consider myself to be a very eclectic and open minded music lover. I can easily listen to Johnny Cash followed by Arcade Fire, Iggy Pop, Outkast and Megadeth back to back without skipping a beat. And I don’t judge music by what era it came from, which is why it bothers me when someone says that all music of a certain genre or after a specific time period sucks. (When you visit the internet as often as I do, you hear this statement a lot.) It depresses me because it shows that not only are they stuck in an outdated mindset, but that they’re simply not trying. Finding good music is like mining for jewels; you have to search hard and dig deep if you want to find the most precious gems. And the harder you search, the more satisfying it is when you finally strike gold. That is the feeling I got when I discovered Mew.
No, it’s not a Pokémon. Mew is actually the name of a Danish group formed by singer Jonas Bjerre, guitarist Bo Madsen, drummer Silas Graae, and bassist Johan Wohlert. Inspired by bands like Pink Floyd, My Bloody Valentine, The Pixies, The Cure and Prince, Mew’s sound is a diverse mixture of progressive rock, dream pop and shoegazer, all driven by Jonas Bjerre’s distinct high pitched voice. Each song is truly an entity of its own because they always seem to be trying something new and innovative with their music while retaining their own identity in the process. They can go from brooding hard rock to emotional ballads to dreamy space pop to melancholy requiems to catchy upbeat pop to complex fantastic soundscapes in a heartbeat. This is a band who knows how to manipulate music in all the right ways and can get a reaction from just about anyone, which is why it puzzles me why they never got the recognition they deserve.
The four members have played music with each other on and off throughout their school years until settling under the Mew moniker in 1994. Three years later they were discovered by a book publishing agent who was so impressed by their sound that he convinced his company to change their business plan so they could record their first album. The result, “A Triumph of Man”, was adored by critics but didn’t do so well commercially due to low distribution and was only released in Denmark. Their 2000 follow-up, “Half the World is Watching Me”, met the same problems. In 2003, Mew signed to a major label and released “Frengers”, which mostly consisted of re-recorded versions of songs from their previous albums, allowing their music to be heard worldwide for the first time.
Frengers eventually became their breakthrough record, and is, quite frankly, one of my most favorite albums of all time. With its lush guitars, slinking drum and bass lines, fluttery synth, ethereal vocals and carefully orchestrated melodies, it is the perfect album to listen to during a thunderstorm. It starts off with “Am I Wry? No”, a hard rock track fueled by sparkling guitars and chugging drums, and ends with “Comforting Sounds”, a nine minute song that starts off slow and gently but steadily builds into a blooming flower of reverberating ecstasy. In between there is a wide plethora of sounds and emotions, from the softly spoken longing in “Her Voice is Beyond Her Years” to the Depeche Mode meets My Bloody Valentine instrumentals of “Snow Brigade” to the twinkling synths and subtle string arrangements of “She Came Home for Christmas”.
Despite the success of Frengers in Europe and a prolific gig as opening act for R.E.M., Mew had yet to make an impact in the United States. Their follow-up, “And the Glass Handed Kites”, was released in September of 2005, but didn’t wash up on Western shores until almost a year later. At that time, Mew was starting to get some recognition in America thanks to an appearance on the Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson, several music festival performances and a North American tour with Bloc Party. By the middle of all this, bassist Johan Wohlert had left the band to raise his family. They have continued on with touring bassist Bastian Juel ever since, but neither he nor long time keyboardist Nick Watts have yet to become official band members and the band is, for the moment, legally considered a trio.
Meanwhile, “And the Glass Handed Kites” was a big hit in Europe. Contrary to the cerebral arrangements of Frengers, Glass Handed Kites took on a much darker tone. Taking cues from bands like Yes and Pink Floyd, the songs have a pop structure with an emphasis on instrumentation and mood, and as a result, they meld into each other like one continuous song. Take for example the album’s three main singles, “Apocalypso”, “Special”, and “The Zookeeper’s Boy” which appear in that order on the record. If you listen to all three back to back, the transition between songs is flawless. But the overall mood of the album is considerably grimmer and more somber than their previous releases, with an overlying theme of fear, uncertainty, and lament in the lyrics, personified most notably in the song “White Lips Kissed”.
2009 saw the release of “No More Stories are Told Today…” (That’s the short version. The real title would take forever to type), which became Mew’s first album to top the European charts. This was mostly driven by the success of the single “Beach”, which would’ve been perfect to use in a french indie film. The album itself is a deluxe hybrid of the upbeat tempos of Frengers (the off-tempo time signatures of “Introducing Palace Players”) combined with the emotional intensity of Glass Handed Kites (the uncertain questioning in “Repeaterbeater”) with a touch of Tears for Fears meets Imogen Heap style synth-pop thrown in for good measure. It’s a psychedelic orchestra of soundscapes and sonic textures that is quite different from its predecessors, but leaves no surprise to the fact that it is made by the same band.
During this year, they became the supporting act for Nine Inch Nails on their world tour, including a sold out show at O2 Arena, which helped No More Stories breach to Billboard Top 200. Even though it only peaked at #130, it’s still a big accomplishment for a little band from Denmark.
To me, Mew is a textbook definition of the word “underrated”. They don’t sound like anybody out there and they’re not very well known outside of their little niche. Those who discover them are the fortunate few and treat their little discovery like a diamond in the rough. Their music is very hard to find outside of the internet, but if you ever see one of their CDs sitting on a shelf, do yourself a favor and pick it up. It will be well worth the search.
Mew released their greatest hits album, “Eggs Are Funny”, in 2010 and they are currently touring Scandinavia. For tour dates and other info, including updates on an upcoming Mew computer game, check out their official website, http://www.mewsite.com/. This has been Left of the Dial, I bring you the music because the radio won’t.