Monday, August 21st, 2006
An Envoy To The Open Fields
When I went on my Scandanavian theme week back in mid-May, I was a little confounded about how I came up empty for decent or interesting Danish bands. I mean, I didn’t look THAT hard, but certainly couldn’t think of any I wanted to write about off the top of my head.
First off, I have to confess that their famously awful album art kept me from listening to Mew’s And the Glass Handed Kites for… I don’t know how long. But it was a while. Not as long as it’s taken the album to get a North American release (it came out in Europe in
2004 2005), but still – a while. But when I did finally pop it in the CD player, my initial reaction was… what the hell. A lot of reviews have referenced Sigur Ros in trying to describe Mew’s sound, but I’ve found more often than not such parallels are lazy writing applied to any Scandanavian band that doesn’t sound like The Hives.
In Mew’s case, the comparisons are simultaneously dead-on yet way-off. Jonas Bjerre’s voice can indeed soar to the stratosphere like Jonsi Birgisson’s and with a similar wide-eyed, childlike quality and the band often reaches even further into space in their musical ambitions. But if Sigur Ros evokes the frozen beauty of a glacier plain, Mew dwell in the hyper-kinetic, ultra-urban neon wilderness of glass and stainless steel. The quartet spew out epic-length glammy post-prog-space rock with touches of Queen-approved arena-metal grandiosity. There’s even a couple J Mascis guest vocals – it’s an unusually demented sort of band that actually invites J to sing on a record, and for that they have my respect. I intially found it hard to believe what I was hearing was created unironically but I think that’s more a comment on my own musical cynicism than anything else. No, these Danes mean every soaring note and I think the world is a better place for it.
And if Mew wasn’t enough to cement Denmark’s place in the musical firmament, I was recently introduced to their countrymen Under Byen, whose name means “under the city”. They’re very aptly named because their slow, druggy aesthetic really does sound subterranean in a modern-day, steampunk sort of way… actually, it sounds like the lost soundtrack to Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s City Of Lost Children, by turns tinkling like a music box or clanging like pipes, hypnotic and beautifully creepy. Adding to the mysteriousness is the fact that all vocals are in Danish, though that’s probably less otherworldly if you speak Danish. One might be tempted to call them a hybrid of Sigur Ros (them again!) and Amina fronted by Bjork, but while that’s quantitatively quite accurate, it also sounds more than a little cliche and doesn’t do the band nearly enough justice for the uniqueness of their sound.
The band has just signed a North American deal with Toronto’s Paper Bag Records, who will release their latest album Samme Stof Som Stof (“Same Fabric As Fabric”) on September 26. They will be playing Pop Montreal on October 5 with Joanna Newsom, so that’s a “for sure” on my calendar – presumably/hopefully there will be a Toronto date to go along with that, perhaps with Newsom again on October 4 at the Mod Club? Pure speculation.
Since both bands are quite established back in their homeland (if wholly unknown on these shores), there’s a surplus of audio and video materials to get acquainted with. Mew, in high gear promoting the album in North America, recently did a session for AOL’s Interface and Pitchfork has an exclusive MP3 to audition. Spin also has some streams. As for Under Byen, this comprehensive fansite has plenty to get you started.
So yeah, Denmark. Way to go. No more Aqua jokes.
MP3: Mew – “Chinaberry Tree”
MP3: Under Byen – “Af Samme Stof Som Stof”
MP3: Under Byen – “Den Her Sang Handler Om At Fa Det Bedste Ud Af Det”
Video: Mew – “Special” (YouTube)
Video: Mew – “The Zookeper’s Boy” (YouTube)
Video: Under Byen – “Af Samme Stof Som Stof” (YouTube)
MySpace: Under Byen
Watched Kicking And Screaming last night. The Noah Baumbach film, not the Will Ferrell one. Enjoyed it. Realized it has been seven years since I graduated from university. Spent the rest of the night in severe depression.
And yes, I was down all morning. Believe me, I know.