mewithoutYou’s new album showcases unique sound

mewithoutYou’s “Ten Stories” earns 4.5 out of 5 stars.

%7C+Courtesy+of+mewithoutyou.com

| Courtesy of mewithoutyou.com

Jeff Koch and Jeff Koch

There are a good five seconds at the beginning of “February 1878,” the lead-off track of mewithoutYou’s latest album, “Ten Stories,” where it doesn’t sound like mewithoutYou at all.

Then the second guitar kicks in and you suddenly know exactly what you’re in for: the half-yelled, half-sung vocals of frontman Aaron Weiss, the occasionally-discordant electric guitar wails woven artfully among accordion, brass and and percussion oddities, the folktale storybook lyrics — yes, all the big set pieces we’ve come to love from the experimental rock band are back in force.

The backdrop for “Ten Stories,” according to the album’s press materials, is “a winding narrative about a circus train crash in 19th century Montana.” Ever pushing the envelope, mewithoutYou may finally have broken the seal. They’re still functioning utterly outside the norm, transcending the expected, being exactly as unconventional on “Ten Stories” as they’ve ever been.

Almost too much so.

Sadly, there are some problems with “Ten Stories” — but the operative word is “some.”

Lyrics disappoint with lack of lucidity

mewithoutYou have a skill for cogent simile and musical, poetic storytelling. They proved it in shining moments on “Brother, Sister” and went whole-hog with narrative and acoustic folk to incredible effect on “It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All a Dream! It’s Alright.” However, it’s gotten away from them a bit on “Ten Stories.”

Narrative and parable are so couched in metaphor and eccentric language it is often impenetrable — and that’s if you can understand Weiss’ mixed-down vocals to begin with. The lyrics flatly aren’t as lucid or imaginative as we’ve come to expect. In places, you’ll need a dictionary to figure out what they mean. If you’ve got to do that, the lyrics become just words, a human voice overlaying a pretty soundtrack. Suddenly, the album is robbed of half of what makes mewithoutYou so fantastic.

The tracks “Elephant in the Dock,” “Grist for the Malady Mill” and “Bear’s Vision of St. Agnus” all suffer from being too much fluff, not enough hook.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is, musically, this the band’s strongest effort to date.

Superb instrumentation shines despite lyrics

We see a triumphant return of the thick, gritty guitar distortion from “[A–>B] life.” Weiss has been getting singing lessons lately and they’re paying dividends, when he’s screaming and when he’s singing. He sounds just a bit like Tom Delonge now — don’t worry, the Delonge of Angels and Airwaves, rather than Blink-182.

Weiss shifts expertly between gorgeous, airy-clean vocals and pained, raw yells that set this band apart from any of their contemporaries. Melody lines are intricate and sumptuous. Each and every track makes at least one hard corner that almost gives you whiplash; this isn’t an album you idly sing along to, and that’s a very good thing.

The instrumentation is absolutely sublime from moment one until the album’s gobsmackingly-clever finale — playing with the boundaries of rock and roll sound like a rubber band. After dramatically evolving their sound and identity over five albums, mewithoutYou have landed on a sound that’s as unique and flavorful as their frontman’s vocals have always been.

Drummer Richard Mazzotta continues to prove himself to be the most innovative rock drummer in the alternative scene. Even the guest appearance of Hayley Williams of Paramore — wait, really? — doesn’t feel forced, but totally organic.

These flawless soundscapes make it even sadder to me that the lyrics lose so much impact in translation. I want so badly to fill in the last half-star.

Band shows overall improvement

On the bright side, “February, 1878,” and “Fox’s Dream of the Log Flume,” are classic mewithoutYou alt-rock. The softly romantic “Aubergine,” the soaring “Nine Stories” and the ultra-clever, permagrin-inducing “All Circles” show how far the band has come from “Bullet to Binary” — without leaving their teeth behind.   

But as a mewithoutYou album? It’s good. It’s no “Brother, Sister” or “It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All a Dream! It’s Alright” though. Or even “[A–>B] Life” or “Catch for Us the Foxes,” for that matter.

“Ten Stories” isn’t bad in any sense of the word. It’s not just good; it’s incredible.

It’s just not as good as I wanted it to be.

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