Goodness knows there are more active musical artists today than there were thirty years ago – or five years ago, or yesterday. Just like the global population, the “band population” has a birth rate that exceeds its mortality rate. (Don’t ask for an analogue for shifting line-ups or new group formation – it gets gruesome.)
But two particular bands dear to me have each announced their impending demise in the last two weeks: Mae and As Tall As Lions. Neither is a pet band of mine, in that I don’t own a full discography worth of music from either. I’d only be able to sing along to half of their songs at a show.
For that reason, my comments below will be largely from the gut. I offer a eulogy for each band as the fan that I was, without actually pursuing the extra research that would be appropriate for a proper review of their careers. If you’re in my age bracket and someone told you Counting Crows was splitting, you might feel sad and go listen to “Mr. Jones” on repeat for fifteen minutes, but you wouldn’t run to the record store and buy Hard Candy to see what you missed when you had the chance. Just so, I’m encapsulating the experiences I already have with these bands for now without yet mixing in full knowledge of their careers.
Mae, originally or apocryphally an acronym for Multisensory Aesthetic Experience, is an indie band proudly hailing from Norfolk, VA. If I remember right, they formed as students at Old Dominion University, a stone’s throw from my own alma mater. Though never admitting to be anything more specific than “spiritual” as individuals and in their music, Mae was often cast as a Christian band due to the contract they had with Tooth & Nail at the time of their rise to fame.
Frankly, I have never been swayed much by the quality of a frontman’s voice, be it glorious or abysmal. So the Dave Gimenez’s thin quality on Destination: Beautiful, which I picked up blindly on a girlfreind’s recommendation, was easy to ignore next to the album’s credible arrangements and cheery sing-along choruses. (Want to know the secret to good arrangements? Get a good bass player. Every indie kid wants to play guitar. If the last step of assembling your band is asking around to see who knows a bass player, it shows in your records.)
Destination: Beautiful was not a breakout hit. Over many years, it grew on me. Every time a Mae track came up in my random playlist, I liked it a little more than before, which I guess just means the album was “greater than or equal to average” paired with “my kind of music.” After the release of Mae’s sophomore LP The Everglow, a few of those new tracks snuck their way onto my hard drive somehow. The production value had leapfrogged to the point where Dave Elkins’s voice suddenly seeemed remarkable in a good way.
Oh, and Dave Gimenez had changed his name to Dave Elkins. I don’t know which one is his real name. I probably should have asked him when I got the chance to say hi after Mae played at the College of William and Mary back in early 2008.
They played in an awful space on the second floor of the student center after opening act Tokyo. Still, there’s little better than soaring in a crowd full of voices during the swells of anthems like “The Ocean,” “Suspension,” and “Anything” – though I’ll admit there were fairly few in attendance who actually knew Mae’s songs.
Even at that point, Mae had released a CD that I didn’t have. I still don’t. I did pay occasional attention, at least, when Mae undertook a “12 songs in 12 months” project that involved releasing a new song every 30 days that could be downloaded from their website for a donation that would go to charity. Those offerings I streamed all sounded as high-quality as I hoped, but I never bought any. Those 12 songs, along with an equal amount of otherwise unreleased material, composed a series of three EPs: (m)orning, (a)fternoon, and (e)vening. How cute!
It was only within the last few months that I bought The Everglow and heard the album in its entirety. My first listen was revolutionary. The cohesion, range, and emotional force ranked immediately in my upper echelon among all LPs. The conceptual design of the album is perfect in construction as the listener is walked organically through the course of an education in love. The execution is entrancing if you’re willing to “fall into it.”
And now that I get it… it’s over.
In July 2010, Mae foreshadowed their oncoming departure from the scene, promising a “Goodbye, Goodnight” farewell tour. The last two weeks brought the tour schedule, enumerating the band’s final shows, with the grand finale back home in Norfolk. Amazingly, despite a line-up change that followed The Everglow, the band has reassembled in its original form for this grand seeing-off. One lucky venue will even be treated to a cover-to-cover performance of The Everglow live. Then, on November 28, the band will start “hiding away, embarking on new adventures, trying out life’s opportunities as individuals with freedom and anticipation.”
My involvement with As Tall As Lions was more brief and pointed. They were an accident – the just-so-happens opening band at an Rx Bandits show. I heard murmurs before the band came out from fans who had traveled far to see them without any fondness for the headliners. The name “As Tall As Lions” meant nothing to me and my initial survey of their MySpace had left no impression. I might have even been confused as to why a ferocious prog-punk-reggae-ska outfit like Rx Bandits would be touring with what looked like a bunch of low-key electric jazz musicians whose only use of a trumpet was for eerie feedback loops.
No such thought crossed my mind that night. As Tall As Lions conquered me with a frenetic, tightly-woven opener named “Circles” that involved most of the band playing drums of one kind or another under a thick, milky vocal melody. Go listen to “Circles” right now. If you don’t like it, listen to it again tomorrow. Also, you’re crazy.
Rx Bandits played a stellar set, but I bought As Tall As Lions’ You Can’t Take It With You that night instead of Rx Bandits’ new Mandala. Days later, upon a spin, I felt betrayed. Live, As Tall As Lions convinced me that they were a prog band of remarkable intelligence and texture. My computer speakers were playing straight-up jazz fusion back at me. (Albeit jazz fusion of remarkable intelligence and texture.) You Can’t Take It With You got buried and I have never dug deeper into their past records.
Naturally, plays from a random playlist have accumulated since then, and a love equal to most of that original dumbstruck spark has been restored. You don’t need to remind me that the line between prog and jazz is nonexistent. These guys fill up the whole center of that Venn diagram. They also make beautiful music.
Word from headquarters is that these boys are calling it quits. Thankfully, like Mae, their announcement had more dignity than a simple “Dear John”: three final concerts were announced for three major US cities, all right before Christmas.
The looming end makes me think about all the good times. Remember that you’ve got to take the chance to love these guys while you’ve got it. Remember that one ticket sold for a show benefits the average band far more than one CD sale. Remember that it benefits the fan more, too. I won’t be able to catch As Tall As Lions (ever) again, but I’ve got my ticket to see Mae in a couple of weeks so that I can say “Goodbye, Goodnight” to some brilliant musicians who couldn’t keep this up forever.