I've been a fan of Mae (short for Multi-sensory aesthetic experience) for quite a while now. After their last release (2007's Singularity), however, I lost track of them. Despite a few standout songs, Singularity just wasn't quite as good as their previous record, The Everglow, and for two years I didn't think much about the band until an e-mail from Amazon arrived in my inbox informing me about their latest release, (m)orning. Naturally, I assumed it was just a new album. I bought it, and have been listening to it in preparation for a review. But, to be honest, I didn't actually seek any information on it until I sat down to write this piece. It seems as though I've fallen behind, because this record has quite a story.
It would seem that not long after the release of Singularity, two of Mae's five members parted with the band. In 2008, the remaining band members split with Capitol Records. Left with no label and a feeling of creative freedom that they'd heretofore not felt, Mae began a complete overhaul of their career; not necessarily their musical style, but their goals, aspirations and philosophy. The idea was thus: throughout 2009, Mae would be dedicating their musical efforts to three charities; they would release one song per month on their website, available as a digital download for a minimum donation of one dollar. They would also compile these songs--along with a few others--into three separate EPs, for sale at their shows and representing three phases of the project ((m)orning, (a)fternoon and (e)vening) and three different charities. All profits from the sales of the EPs would be donated to their respective charities. According to their site, since January 1st, they have raised over $55,000 for Habitat For Humanity and DonorsChoose.
After digesting all this, I feel like my tone for this review should be a little different. Admittedly, I had to listen to (m)orning a few times to really get a feel for it, but I do like it (bear with me, I will elaborate). And I'll also admit that much of this--the high-mindedness, the adherence to the (mae) acronym, the scratch-and-sniff CD sleeves they sold at their shows--might come off, to those previously unfamiliar with Mae, as pretentious. Bono-ish, even. But I find it difficult to doubt the earnestness of something like this:
"Our promise to you is to commit all of the profits from digital downloads to fund humanitarian projects that Mae and you will be a part of all year long. Like a fire that spreads without boundaries, we can ignite a change in this world if we work together. As we tie our voices, our resources, our minds, and most importantly our actions together, we will see the world change for the better over the course of this year and beyond. Take this music and this mission and run with it."
This isn't just lip-service; Mae is actually doing this, and they're doing it without any press, promotion or fanfare. To say that they're doing it for any other reason than that they truly believe in it is, I think, hopelessly cynical.
All of that said: the CD/DVD version of (m)orning that was released in September is not a charity release, but the motivation behind its composition and recording remains the same. And as a record in its own right, it's damn good; certainly nothing if not interesting. Absent Rob Sweitzer's keyboards, which were an integral part of Mae's previous sound, the band's remaining members have moved--musically--in a more "progressive" direction. While The Everglow was a concept album, and definitely progressive in that aspect, its individual songs were mostly standard verse-chorus-verse rock tunes. With (m)orning, however, we're presented with some longer and more intricate songs, meandering in structure and tempo changes, and an overall sense of musical freedom and daring. I think that Mae tried to be a little more daring on Singularity, which was mostly a let-down. It appears that when they describe finding themselves with "no limitations," and of being "continually inspired with creativity," they're (again) not just spewing platitudes; the daring of (m)orning is--while a little tougher to get a grasp on--infinitely more satisfying.
Now, don't take me wrong, here: by "a little tougher to get a grasp on," I don't mean that (m)orning is inaccessible, discordant or non-melodic; far from it. I simply mean that--as I said earlier--it took me a few listens to really get a feel for the record. The elements that characterize Mae's style are all here, but they're put together in an altogether different way. While the keyboards may be sparse, there are a number of flutes and winds that really do make the album feel like, well, the morning. Mae's managed to thicken their guitar sounds--in the writing, in the effects and production, and by adding in some acoustics and twelve-strings--which mostly fill the void left by the lack of the piano. The jazzy instrumental opening track fades and gives way to the quiet opening of "The Fisherman (We All Need Love)," which begins with one of the more endearing guitar progressions I've heard from this band. In addition, this first section of the nearly nine-minute song presents a spectacular bassline once the rhythm section kicks in; it follows the chord progression while playing with octaves and adding quick riffs that give a beautiful life to this early part of (m)orning. This little piece of the song only lasts for just over a minute before the song veers into another movement, but these sixty-two-odd seconds do a superb job of grabbing one's attention. "The Fisherman" thrills through its nine minutes and numerous musical movements before closing with Dave Elkins'--displaying a newfound vocal power and confidence--sustained blast of "we all need love" over a dual-octave power chord riff.
Though only five of (m)orning's eight tracks have lyrics, each of these five songs is well-developed enough to make the whole of the record feel worthwhile. "The House That Fire Built," in addition to being the call-to-arms of Mae's new philosophy, alternates effectively between driving and marching beats and remains compelling through its seven minutes. "Boomerang" sports some truly interesting guitar composition and performance, a nice horn section during its instrumental section, and an excellent middle-eight; it also flows seamlessly into "Two Birds," a very pretty acoustic guitar-and-flute interlude song. Each of the record's songs is distinct, but they share enough in style and execution that they create a satisfying whole.
Even if Mae's aims with (m)orning weren't so lofty, it would be well worth your time; it stands up on its own impressively. As they are, though, I hope those of you that enjoy their music will consider supporting their cause. A number of songs from the upcoming (a)fternoon and (e)vening albums are currently available as songs-of-the-month on Mae's website, and they're all well worth the modest donation being asked for their download. To see a relatively unknown act emerge from professional turmoil with such selfless dedication and purpose--and to do so with some of the best music of their career--is both inspiring and noteworthy. Even if one didn't care to donate to Mae's cause, the commercial release of (m)orning is far from the worst you could do with $6.99. Whatever their motives are in its creation, I'm looking forward to the rest of this "day."