Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Mute Math: Armistice
The first thing you need to know about Mute Math is that lead singer Paul Meany plays the keytar in concert. Don't even try to tell me that's not awesome.
Armistice, the second album from this New Orleans rock band, lives in a very nice middle-ground. Mute Math's overall sound--a blend of alternative rock and electronic, almost psychedelic music--and Armistice in particular sit comfortably between Bloc Party and U2; more melodic and pop-sensible than the former, and utilizing the kind of lead riffs and echo-chamber sound of the latter in ways that are infinitely more interesting (and without the stupid sunglasses, silly monikers and general obnoxiousness).
From the opening track, "The Nerve," we can tell that there's something just a little different about this Mute Math record. The foundation is the same: funky beats, swirling keyboards, strong bass lines and effects-laden guitars. But "The Nerve" seems injected with a bit of soul that never made itself known on Mute Math. The whole of Armistice feels a bit more "loose" than the band's debut; I put that particular word in quotes because I don't want to give the impression that Mute Math is any less technically proficient in their performance here--they aren't. There is, however, just a slight change in the overall tone of the music. Mute Math was--and is--a fantastic record in every aspect, but even the most uplifting songs on it felt deadly serious; not necessarily cold or lacking emotion, but very tightly focused. Armistice, on the other hand, feels a touch more playful; relaxed, perhaps. The difference is subtle, but it's there. To better illustrate my point, I'd point specifically to Paul Meany's vocals. He is, of course, still an excellent singer, powerful through his entire range and tonally right-on. He sounds more natural, though, this time around; there's a lot less reverb put on the vocals, a lot more harmony, and--apologies for the repeated use of this word--a little more soul. His transitions are just slightly more drawn-out but still smooth, giving the songs a warmth that was often missing from their debut.
To be honest, I'm kind of nitpicking here in pointing out these subtle comparisons. The important thing is that Armistice is really a good listen. As I said before, the Mute Math hallmarks are still here: keyboards and computer effects swirl and splash throughout the album without totally dominating the soundscape. The songs are still full of funky rhythms and off-beats that manage to keep toes tapping. Several of the reviews I've read of Armistice lament the absence of U2-ish songs like "Collapse" and "Typical," the arena-rock standouts of Mute Math, pointing to the more ambient sound and complex melodies of this record as a departure from the band's originality and pop sense. That complaint, however, ignores the fact that--the aforementioned two songs aside--the remainder of Mute Math was hardly pop music. I'd counter that Armistice leans ever-so-slightly more in the direction of pop (perhaps alternative, more aptly) by retaining the experimental ambiance of the band's debut while cutting down on the "open spaces," as one might say; those periods on Mute Math where the vocals dropped out and for a minute or two we were left with just the rhythm section. That isn't to say that there aren't impressive instrumentals here; the gorgeous string interlude of "Clipping" is a highlight. The quick piano that tiptoes through this tune, the pulsating keyboards and the high harmony makes this one of my favorite songs on the record.
Armistice, while often unconventional, is not always mid-tempo and cerebral. "Spotlight," "Electrify," "Goodbye" and the title track can all hang with the best dance-rock you're likely to find, especially the latter with its groovy funk, frenetic bass and killer horn section. Fans of the band's debut will dig "Pins and Needles," with its relatively sparse instrumentation and jazzy percussion. And U2 themselves--along with a number of other lame pop bands--could learn a thing or two from the ballad "Lost Year," which drops the synths in favor of a piano and strings, and manages to lay a beautiful track over a still-interesting beat, not sacrificing Mute Math's identity.
Though I seem to be in the critical minority with this opinion, I think that Armistice is a step forward for this talented band. They've added a subtle new dimension to their sound while maintaining their uniqueness; essentially, they've held on to their originality without re-hashing their debut. As I said, it's a nice balance between the experimental and the accessible. I've never understood the thinking of critics who pine that a new record is not the old record. It seems counter-intuitive to hope that a band never progresses or tweaks their sound as they mature as songwriters and musicians; that maturation what makes a momentarily great band into a reliable favorite. My dad used to tell me that to consider a band great, each of their albums had to be better than its predecessor. It may be to early to state whether Mute Math will achieve that level of greatness, but Armistice is a worthy notice of intent.