mewithoutYou delve deeper into storytelling

A new voice
By ANNIE ZALESKI  |  August 7, 2012

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CAGED BEAST MewithoutYou's record abstractly resembles old Disney movies: whimsical and
lighthearted on the surface, but posessing a darker core.

During the last few years, each member of mewithoutYou returned to college in between musical pursuits. On the advice of a mentor, vocalist Aaron Weiss focused on urban education; as a secondary field of study, he gravitated toward philosophy. At the time, the musician was at a creative crossroads — mainly, he wasn't sure if he could write a follow-up to 2009's folk-driven It's All Crazy! It's All False! It's All a Dream! It's Alright. "There was no sense for me of how to write another record," he says, calling from Denver during mewithoutYou's current tour. "I didn't feel like I had it in me. There was nothing else I really wanted to say."

But unexpectedly, a course on pragmatism and American thought — specifically, a story told by psychologist/philosopher William James — helped rekindle Weiss' songwriting spark. The true tale focuses on a tiger in a traveling menagerie which inexplicably stayed behind in its cage after its train crashed, even though it had the means to escape on its own. "And when the authorities arrived, there it was — still in the cage," Weiss explains. "[James] was looking at this as evidence of animals being habitual by nature. That was interesting enough on its own, but maybe more importantly for our band, it seemed to me as a jumping-off point. I thought, 'Well, that's one character in the menagerie; the tiger decides to stay with the circus. But what about all the other animals?' It immediately clicked: this one story could launch a whole series of subplots of what the other animals do."

The result of his intrigue is mewithoutYou's dense and thought-provoking fifth album, appropriately called Ten Stories (Pine Street). A record full of lovely, vibrant imagery with old-fashioned flair —"Our salt fire danced as our tea leaves dried" or "We've both been untrue but I'm still counting on you like an invisible rosary" are typical turns of phrase — Weiss uses the perspective of these other animals to raise questions about love, loss, regret, death, and faith.

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"[Philosophy in general] sharpens your ability to critically examine an issue from different perspectives," Weiss says. "That way of thinking has found its way into the songs. We really didn't have a sense of anything I was really trying to say, or a position I was trying to convince anybody of. That was a real weight off my shoulders. In the past, I really have felt the need to advance some conclusion, teach some lesson or have a moral to the story. Not that I think that there are no lessons to be taught or there's no morality worth believing in. It just felt more exciting — or maybe a better word is more appropriate — for me to be raising questions and openly wrestling with possibilities."

Unexpectedly, Ten Stories' music is also far heavier than it's been since mewithoutYou's earlier albums. While ornate acoustic details add delicacy ("Aubergine"), gnarled post-rock ("February, 1878"), moody distress ("Cardiff Giant"), and strident guitar slabs ("Fiji Mermaid") are more common. In a sense, the record abstractly resembles Disney movies from the '40s and '50s: whimsical and lighthearted on the surface, but possessing a darker core.

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