The alternative rock of the 2000s has proven to be a difficult beast to pin down. Whereas the ‘90s had a constant barrage of movements (grunge, Britpop, electronica) and faddish retroisms (Green Day punk, Jamiroquai funk, ABBA), they were relatively concise and finite compared to what the new millennium seems to have adopted: a climate of post-modernism so extreme that anything goes. At the onset of the decade, the Strokes and the Stripes ushered in the resurgence of garage rock, which has in turn led to the revisitation of early ‘80s post-punk and new wave. On the other hand, there are bands like the Darkness, churning forth a not-so-ironic brand of British glam and ‘80s hair metal, as well as a startling, ever-increasing number of Beach Boys disciples like the Thrills. Thus, the release of an album that somehow refuses to fit into the canvas of what is currently happening is all the more surprising; that it succeeds in sounding ahead of its time rather than out of step is what makes it truly worth experiencing. Americans can’t easily experience it yet, however. Frengers (“Not Quite Friends But Not Quite Strangers”), the debut album by Danish newcomers Mew, was released a year ago in the UK and Europe, but is not yet on the schedule for US release.
Two things set Mew apart from the pack almost immediately: the high-as-heaven voice of frontman Jonas Bjerre, which more than anything else contributes the kitteny aspects of the band’s name, and the memorably non-conformist song structures: all hooks, all the time, with little of the verse-chorus-verse predictability that can water down a pop song’s impact, but also with no trace of pretentiousness or preciousness. “Am I Wry? No” kicks off the album with an onslaught of choppy guitars and punky drum rhythms, which fade as soon as Jonas soars in, only to return once the emphasis on his voice is established. This pattern repeats for about two “verses”, until the music shifts gears completely for a jangly guitar line supported by a subtle orchestral synth melody. Jonas continues to sing (“Fallacy in my words!”) as the music shifts back into what it was doing before (for only one line) and then introduces yet another new section, which acts as a coda until the song fades. The following song, “156”, is even more surprising, as three entirely different choruses of varying tempos and textures separate the gorgeous synth-bathed verses. Bjerre’s lyrics here are striking and emotive, helping lift his gentle voice into powerful places (“You are just like an avalanche / Cold as I might have guessed / But at least I’m covered up for now”). Other tracks display more conventional strengths, such as “She Came Home for Christmas”, which could be a stadium-rock sing-along in the hands of any other band, or “Symmetry”, a lovely duet with a delicate female singer (Becky Jarrett) that unfortunately kills some of the momentum of the album due to its early placement.
Apparently, the band met in film school and they choose to bring their mutual love for film into the production of their music, both in the adventurous, narrative structures of the songs and in visual accompaniment at their live shows. This filmic quality is most evident in “Comforting Sounds”, the nine-minute masterpiece which closes the album that was also chosen as the lead single. Jonas sadly laments about the loss of intimacy with a loved one (“Why don’t we share our solitude / Nothing is pure anymore but solitude”), accompanied only by a spare lullaby on guitar with some synth and light piano to fill the space for half the duration of the song. When the rest of the band kicks in, Jonas is heard no more, but the rest of the story is triumphantly played out by the lush emotional swells of the keyboards, the increasing intensity of the guitar, and even a guest trumpet. The loved ones are crying, separated, and physically moving in opposite directions, as the credits roll. It’s not the typical Hollywood ending, but fitting for the surprisingly atypical Frengers.