1.10.2007

In The Fray

So The Fray came to town last night, with Mute Math, an up-and-coming elctro-alt-rock band from New Orleans ...

... I went into the show cautiously optimistic. Yes, The Fray is selling mongo numbers of their album. And yes, you can't turn on a TV right now without hearing 'How To Save A Life' on some hit show ... But see, I don't get what all the buzz is about The Fray. Almost all their songs sound the same to me, they don't do anything particularly out of ordinary and when Kates and I saw them in Chicago 13 months ago, before most people had heard of them, they were, well, kind of boring ... So I went into last night's show hoping that maybe a year on the road had allowed them to mature.

Mute Math, on the other hand, has a darn good thing going, and it's sad that as an alternative indie band they may never accumulate close to the amount of album sales or notice The Fray is finding ...

Above all, it’s not often you hear musicians expressing a desire for things to go wrong during their shows, but the fact Mute Math drummer Darren King wears a pair of duct-taped headphones shows the band is used to its equipment breaking down.

“Things going wrong is the best way to perform live; it’s a fine ballet with destruction,” Mute Math frontman Paul Meany told me during an interview a few weeks ago. “Some of our worst shows are when anything goes right. We just like to start throwing our songs out on the table in front of an audience.”

Mute Math, with its electro-alt rock sound, had a memorable 2006. In September, the band released their overdue debut album on Warner Bros. Records, and saw it land at No. 17 on Billboard’s Top Heatseekers in its first week. They also drew thousands at the Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza and Van’s Warped Tour festivals. The band is already working on material for a sophomore album that could be in stores later this year or early 2008.

“It has been pivotal year,” Meany said. “We started the year not really sure what was going to happen. We started out putting the record out ourselves but then got in some label turmoil … Then one thing led to another. We were able to keep playing some shows and there was a domino effect.”

The seeds of Mute Math were planted in 2001 as a burned-out Meany was breaking from his Christian-rock band Earthsuit and King, a Springfield, Mo., native and Earthsuit fan, began sending elaborate musical tracks and demos to Meany. A long-distance collaboration ensued and Meany invited King to New Orleans for a weekend.

“I was listening to these CDs from this kid down in Springfield, Missouri and I was impressed,” Meany said. “In the beginning, I was thinking this would be a creative side project. But we wrote some songs and it wound up being something special.”

Over the next couple years, Meany and King began performing as a two-piece and kept writing songs, never sure of the direction they were heading. Eventually they added guitar player Greg Hill and recruited Roy Mitchell-C├írdenas, who played with Meany in Earthsuit, solidifying Mute Math’s lineup.

With the release of their Reset EP on the Teleprompt label in September 2004, the band launched an Internet blitz and began video-blogging their live performances. Word-of-mouth drew sold-out crowds to shows in Los Angeles, New York, Nashville and Houston, and Warner Bros. came calling, though the label let the band’s debut album lie in limbo for a year before finally releasing it last fall.

But if you hear electro-alt rock, and think of “some left-of-center experimental noise art,” Meany said in another interview, think again. The result actually is a diverse debut album that is at times loud and obnoxious, like on the guitar-heavy second track, “Typical,” and at other times beautiful and meditative as on “You Are Mine.” By incorporating elements of rock, industrial, reggae, '80s pop, jazz and rave on top of ambient vocals and catchy hooks, the band is ready-made for arenas and fist-pumping crowds across the globe.

But Meany prefers not to call the soaring Mute Math sound an accident. “It was really just throwing ourselves into creating, just making music that we both like, just throwing it on the table and seeing if we can make something that’s somewhat sensible,” he said. “Of course we wanted to try and challenge ourselves with the way we thought a rock band should look.”

Listening to the debut album, it’s easy to draw comparisons to U2, Linkin Park or even Enigma. But there’s another oft-made comparison that Mute Math gladly accepts -- the one that likens them to The Police. For someone who didn’t know better, it’s easy to mistake Meany’s grainy vocals for those of Sting on the fifth track, “Noticed.”

“I can’t deny that The Police played a strong role in the way that we look at music and in the way we structure it,” Meany said, noting Jimi Hendrix and The Who as other influences. “You think about how much great music has been compiled in the last 50 years, it’s almost humbling you can ever have a band that might work in the world of music. We’re doing our best to learn what each band did wrong or right and you just try to carve out a little notch for yourself and create some songs that might have some relevance.”

So about last night's show ...

The Fray had been playing for nearly an hour when they broke out their uber-popular single “How To Save A Life” as the finale of their set.

At the sound of the song’s first note, the sellout crowd that packed the arena unleashed high-pitch screams and became as animated as they’d been all night. A sea of illuminated cell phones and digital cameras bobbed above the heads, girls sang at the top of their lungs and it was as though most of the crowd had paid their $27.50 and traveled the miles just for that moment.

As the song wound to a halt, the band left frontman Isaac Slade to play the song’s twinkling piano melody and repeat the chorus. A few bars more and Slade took his hands from the piano, singing the chorus once more with the crowd. Then Slade went silent, letting the crowd shout the chorus themselves.

It was easily one of the most enduring moments of the show, before the band members blew kisses and waved good-bye. But the moment couldn’t save a predictable performance, which didn’t stray far from the sound and formula that’s made the Denver-based band so successful.

“How To Save A Life,” of course, skyrocketed The Fray’s profile in 2006 and it’s no wonder their shows are packing arenas. Since forming in 2002 and releasing their debut album, also titled “How To Save A Life,” in 2005, The Fray has become a mainstay on the Billboard charts with the album selling more than 2 million copies. The band’s first single “Over My Head (Cable Car) ” reached the top 10 of Billboard’s Hot 100, Pop 100 and Hot Digital Songs charts. The album’s title track also raced up Billboard charts and has been on Billboard’s Hot Digital Songs chart for 38 weeks, peaking at No. 1.

Their album also has earned the band two Grammy nominations and last week came news that “How To Save A Life” passed Coldplay’s “X&Y” as the most downloaded album of all-time.

The band, which consists of core members Isaac Slade (vocals, piano), Joe King (guitar, vocals), Dave Welsh (guitar) and Ben Wysocki (drums), and another guitarist who appeared last night but was never introduced, launched their winter tour at the local college and will go on to play 18 more dates across the United States before traveling overseas to Europe in mid-February.

Slade, who was front and center at his piano all night, arrived on stage with his bandmates to shrieking cheers and wasted no time getting into “Over My Head (Cable Car),” the single that helped launch The Fray buzz in late 2005. And the crowd hung on, raising cell phones and clicking digital cameras through the upbeat “She Is” and the catchy “All At Once.” But like the spotlight that’s shone so brightly on The Fray in the last 12 months will probably fade, so went the crowd’s excitement.

The band played a 10-song set that lasted barely an hour and included a nice blend of favorites from their platinum-selling album, in addition to some some new tunes, including “Absolute.” And during some of The Fray’s more upbeat songs, the floor bounced and shook, no doubt raising fears for some that they’d be the top story on the nighttime news: “Hundreds injured when floor collapses at rock concert.”

For some of the parents and and older fans, the surprise favorite of the night might have been The Fray’s punked-up take on The Beatles’ hit “Eleanor Rigby” midway through their set. Slade and King combined for a gorgeous a capella harmony on the song’s “Ah, look at all the only people” opening before the rest of the band burst in with their instruments. As I looked around, though, the scene was similar to the one that played out when James Blunt and his band struck up Supertramp's “Breakfast In America” -- the young fans were clueless.

At one point, Slade admitted to being a little rusty after a long Christmas break and it showed. The shaved-headed frontman rarely appeared to be having fun and, for the most part, his bandmates played like drones at his side. On top of Slade’s whiny and sometimes grating vocals, it was tough not to wonder whether his bottom was superglued to his piano bench. He did little to draw any crowd reaction, and barely interacted with the crowd — though he did utter a hard-to-understand gripe about the cold weather.
Yet, if the floor did cave on Tuesday night, Mute Math could have been blamed. The four-piece New Orleans band, which opened for The Fray, came close to blowing the roof off the building with a percussive rock spectacle that featured members jumping on instruments and on each other. So it was more than fair when Slade later gave them their due, proclaiming to the crowd that Mute Math is “one of the best live bands out there.”

With the crowd still spilling into the arena, Mute Math arrived on stage at exactly 7 p.m. and burst into “Typical,” the explosive second track on their debut album. Constant flashing lights, combined with the methodical drumbeats, sampling and that moving floor, must have made the crowd feel like they were at a rave.

The band’s goal to destroy things on stage was clear. While Meany seemed in his own world, bouncing around the stage with his keytar and then pounding on a keyboard, Darren King, strapped on headphones and all, was in another universe. The band poured unending energy into songs like “Chaos” and “Control,” as King beat any life left in his drum kit, slapping cymbals with his hands and reaching for a fresh pair of drumsticks after nearly every song.

As Mute Math’s 45-minute set drew to a close, Meany, King and bass player Roy Mitchell-Cardenas each picked up a pair of drumsticks and began slapping whatever objects were close — the keyboard, stage floor, microphone stands — as guitarist Greg Hill played with samples. All of it led made for a mind-boggling finale that had Meany doing back flips from his keyboard until he fell on King and the two crumpled to the floor.

“Thanks a lot everybody. We’ll clean up our mess now,” Meany told the crowd as the song ended and he got to his feet.

If only The Fray wasn’t so clean.

Mute Math set list
(There's a short Mute Math-produced video with clips of their show here -- watch for Meany jumping onto King in the last 10-or-so seconds!)
“Typical”
“Chaos”
“Plan B”
“Control”
“Noticed”
(an impromptu jam session)
“Reset”

The Fray set list
“Over My Head (Cable Car)”
“She Is”
“All At Once”
“Absolute”
“Dead Wrong”
“Heaven Forbid”
“Look After You”
(An acoustic guitar solo by Slade; he didn't announce the title)
“Trust Me”
“How To Save a Life”
(... There's a good Fray read here ... and a good Mute Math read here ... )

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