In Rank Your Records, we talk to members of bands who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
There are only two points on which mewithoutYou’s Aaron (vocals) and Michael Weiss (guitars/keyboards) agree when it comes to ranking their studio albums—that debut record [A → B] Life is their least favorite and that their brand new album Pale Horses, which is out this week from Run for Cover Records, is their favorite.
We asked the brothers to rank their back catalog, and what follows is a fraction of their analytical and considered responses to the music their band has released since putting out its debut record. Yet while the pair’s orders were different, their thoughts on their wildly eclectic discography were actually quite similar. The list below follows Aaron’s order of preference, but, for reference, Michael’s is as follows:
5. [A → B] Life
4. It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All A Dream! It’s Alright
3. Ten Stories
2. Brother, Sister
1. Catch For Us The Foxes
5. [A → B] Life (2002)
Noisey: You both put your first record in last place. Why?
Aaron Weiss: Well, it’s hard to say any of them because they’re like children and I love them all the same, but [A → B] Life is the worst one. Listening to it 13 years later, it strikes me as pretty lazy, lyrically, and relatively uninteresting, lyrically. It was probably the quickest one for me to write and I didn’t put a whole lot of effort into it. Whatever is in there are my immediate emotions and I just wrote them down and shouted them and it took just a couple takes. It was by far the quickest album we ever recorded, so it has the feeling of being relatively raw and unsophisticated. Last time I listened to it, the impression it left on me was, “Yikes! I’m an idiot.” At the same time, I shouldn’t say that. I was at a point of being in a lot of pain and single-mindedly interested in one or two things, and in a one- or two-dimensional place in my life. There’s not a whole lot of depth when I look back. I like, sometimes, the raw energy and I still like performing a few of those songs, but it feels like it wasn’t as carefully constructed as some of our later stuff. But I think J. Robbins did a great job with the production of it, especially with the time that he had and what we brought to the table. But also, so much of what I wrote about on that album is my relationship with this one young lady, and we since broke up, she got married, I got married, and I can’t relate to those feelings of heartache and loss about that girl anymore. Michael Weiss: I look back on it, and it’s a little too one-dimensional compared to the rest of the albums. The diversity just isn’t really there. You can see where we’re trying our best to do something else. But ultimately it’s all power chord-driven, it’s really harsh and it’s just not balanced. I don’t dislike the record, I just feel it’s lacking a certain level of experience with the musicianship. It’s just not developed.
4. Catch for Us the Foxes (2004)
This is surprisingly low down, given that it’s probably the fan favorite. Why?
Aaron: I think it still relies so heavily on the shouting vocal technique. Over the years, we got better at incorporating melody—and I think at some point we maybe took that a little too far with It’s All Crazy!… —and I think there are elements of melody on this album, but it still, to me, comes across as too aggressive. The shouting vocals approach works when it’s balanced and supplemented by the melody, so you don’t just tired of hearing this one sound coming at you. I just get tired of hearing my voice. Also, it was before I ever took vocal lessons, and I remember I had difficulty recording it. There were a lot of takes where I couldn’t get a good vocal sound and I couldn’t control my voice very well. It was very frustrating. So it’s mostly the vocals. I love the music the guys play on that one, but I don’t feel like I did a good job on it.
It must have been very strange, then, playing it again for the recent anniversary tour and reliving it night after night. How was that?
Aaron: Well, you have to keep in mind that I actually like all of our albums, so when I say it’s my fourth favorite, I wouldn’t say it’s my second least favorite! Anything we’ve actually released on an EP or an LP I still feel proud of. I gather that it’s a popular one, relatively speaking by our band’s standards, and that it’s a favorite for a lot of people who listen to us, so that’s one reason it made sense to do an anniversary tour. Another reason is that it’s just fun to play live, and that’s another distinction worth drawing. A lot of the songs on there I wouldn’t want to sit down and listen to the recording of, because I just don’t listen to heavy music, but it’s enjoyable to perform.
Michael: I mean, this is my number one album, and doing that tour made me love it more. Right after we made it, before it was released, I didn’t think it was that great. I don’t know. But going out on the road and playing it back then made it like it more, and then when we did the reunion tour, I realized it’s actually still going strong with a lot of kids who were probably at elementary school at the time it came out, and it’s obviously the flagship record of this band’s career.
Is there one thing you remember making about it that really stands out?
Michael: Just that it was some of the greatest times of my life. It really felt like we were a real band. The whole thing just felt like, “Wow. We’ve definitely made it. This is my life, man!” because we were recording it in LA with Brad Wood and were in the studio every day for a month. We hadn’t really achieved anything at that point, but it was amazing to be in that environment, and they’re some of the fondest memories I have.
How do you relate to its songs now?
Aaron: To me, lyrically, it’s the most internally disjointed, because it was written right on the precipice of a pretty intense life change, so I look back and about half the songs are really despairing and dark, and the other half are really hopeful. I can’t look back at one single frame of mind that I was in during the writing of it, because there was so much change in my life, even over the course of writing that. It was the most concentrated area of growth, so it’s hard to characterize where I was at or what I had in mind for the album as a whole because it’s so varying.
What was the life change that sparked all that off?
Aaron: I went to live in a religious community and they were very intent on trying to live out the teachings of the sermons of Jesus and trying to love each other and put their faith into practice and work towards social justice and bring heaven to Earth and living on Earth as a kind of heaven. And that was big change for me, because I’d always thought of heaven as a place you go when you die and you’re good or something. It was a time of my faith coming alive in a very tangible way, to where all the things I had wondered if they were real or had any applicable value or dimension, suddenly they came alive. I’d always thought of it in very spiritualized terms and I began to see more of a social dimension to a lot of the scriptures and I started to see that the importance in the Bible of justice on Earth and concern for the poor has a strong theme, as does sacrificing our material possessions and sharing with others—more like communal, socialist principles, and all those things made the Bible much more real and immediate and political to me than I had previously understood. It wasn’t just these mysterious spiritual concepts. So that album was so scatterbrained I can’t even speak on where I was at when we were writing it because there were so many different emotions colliding at once.
3. It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All a Dream! It’s Alright (2009)
So this one is your “folky” album, for want of a better term.
Aaron: I mentioned my dissatisfaction with my vocals for Catch for Us the Foxes and A → B Life, and with Brother, Sister I tried to mix in a lot more melody. When I realized I could do that it inspired me to try all singing, to not rely on the shouting anymore, which was my go-to vocal approach. So I deliberately set out to do the entire album without any screaming and to incorporate more acoustic instruments and folk instruments and a more standard verse-chorus format. I tried to make songs like the kind of music I like to listen to—some of my favorite artists are Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen and Neutral Milk Hotel, singer-songwriters with, in most cases, pretty simple chord structures but more of a focus on telling the stories and hearing the lyrics and having more melody. Long story short, I like that I did that, and some of the songs, I think, turned out really well, but at the same time the album suffered from a similar one-dimensionality as what I mentioned with [A → B ]Life. [A → B] Life was all screaming, and then It’s All Crazy!, I just got rid of screaming altogether and did all singing. I like folk music better than I like punk music in general, I think we are a better punk band than we are a folk band.
Looking back, it’s not very strong vocally. I’m not a very great singer. I think I need a lot of help with a producer keeping an eye on what my technique is. But I’m still proud of some of the songs on there and some of the stories, and I think it turned out well. I just don’t like how my voice sounds very much on that, and it sounds a little bit disjointed as a band. It sounds like we weren’t very coherent as a unit. I wrote the songs in my bedroom and brought them to the guys and I don’t think they felt very inspired to play on them.
Is that true?
Michael: Yes. As one of the people contributing to making that record, I felt more like I was a session guitar player rather than a guy who comes to the band with ideas on a guitar and makes songs out of it. I see it as an experiment that went wrong. Not terribly wrong, but it went wrong. A lot of the experience of writing wasn’t focused enough on “should” and was just focused on “can we do this?” And I think we learned that there are a lot of things that we can do proficiently, but I don’t think we should have done them, given that we were coming off an album [Brother, Sister] that was very successful by our standards. I think we decided it was just time for us to do whatever the fuck we wanted to do, and I don’t think we earned that. It was super fun to be like, “Yeah, let’s just put a 14-piece orchestra on this song,” and I think “The King Beetle On A Coconut Estate” is on point 100 percent, but really we were just playing with dad’s power tools and we didn’t have permission, and maybe we shouldn’t have been messing around that much.
Are these thoughts that have come now with hindsight, or did you kind of feel that way when you finished recording it? I imagine you were proud of it at first.
Aaron: That’s a great question. And in fact, without exception, every album that we’ve made has been my favorite one right when we’ve finished it. And It’s All Crazy! was just like that. When we finished it, I thought everybody’s going to love it, and I certainly loved it, and I still do, actually. I really do. But if I can be totally honest—and this is a strange, personal thing I’ve probably never mentioned to anybody in an interview—I’m very sensitive to how my voice sounds in a recording. Very subtle changes in my vocal delivery make my voice sound, to me, either really embarrassing or really good. And I listen back and I wasn’t using proper vocal techniques or it was really nasally or I wasn’t singing from my diaphragm. There’s something really flimsy about it and a lot of the album sounds that way to me.
2. Ten Stories (2012)
This one’s about a circus train crash that takes place in 1878 and what the animals held captive in it did after. So is it fair to say this is your most conceptual record?
Aaron: Yes. And the idea of having a single theme—the train crash and the story that unfolds and the different characters… it’s something that I was trying as an experiment, but to me, that album, by far has the most internal coherence. There’s a single imaginary world in which everything takes place—and I’m not sure how much of this comes through, but there are songs that are paired thematically throughout. It was an interesting way for me to keep the writing fresh, in that I was trying something new, but at some point it started to feel almost like a rock opera. The original version of a lot of those songs was much more explicit and I began to get tired of it. It began to feel too obvious, so I had to obscure some of it and change some of the lyrics to make it a little more symbolic and muddy the waters. That being said, I still feel like the storyline is a little more straightforward than any of our other albums, even though there are a lot of different perspectives represented by different characters. But it’s a different way to write and it doesn’t feel like a very characteristic album lyrically. It’s too much of a departure in the sense of it being a concept album. I don’t think of us as a band that writes concept albums, but that’s the one where I really tried to do that, and I think it turned out well. It has all these very simple parallels to my own life and my own sense of struggle with what I feel held captive by and my own sense of what freedom means.
Michael: I think it’s an amazing concept and we all wrote really great music for it. I think “All Circles” and “February, 1878” and “Fox’s Dream Of The Log Flume” are amazing songs, and “Bear’s Vision Of St. Agnes” is one of my top five favorite songs, and when I go back and forth between Pale Horses and Ten Stories, Ten Stories just sounds so much less powerful. I guess it’s just not mastered as well. Something about it just seems to lack from the perspective of volume and production.
There’s a wonderful line in “Cardiff Giant” that says “I often wonder if I’ve already died.” That really stands out as a lyric that sums a lot of the album up, because it serves as a metaphor for the captivity of the circus animals—and, by extension, human institutionalism—but it’s also a more spiritual and psychological version of it. Perhaps?
Aaron: I’m glad you asked about that lyric, actually. That song is a dialogue between the tiger and the peacock, both of whom stayed in captivity for different reasons. The tiger was very deliberate in remaining because of his sense of internal freedom regardless of external circumstances, but the peacock just feels kind of stuck. And the first time it’s the peacock saying “I often wonder if I’ve already died,” meaning a sense of having squandered her freedom—she missed the opportunity to escape and she’s stuck in this life that has no purpose or growth. And then the tiger responds in the second chorus saying the same thing, but it means almost the exact opposite—the tiger is wondering if the ego has been annihilated, if the self has been totally surrendered, and the tiger has been taken to some new, higher level of consciousness or reality. So it’s taking the same exact sentence and flipping it on its head.
1. Brother, Sister (2006)
And so we come to the top of the list.
Aaron: Yeah. And I realize I’ve been defining a lot of my explanations in negative terms, but when we made Brother, Sister I think it was the first time I really felt we had some real diversity and breadth to what we were able to do. I didn’t feel so much like a one trick pony—like, we can incorporate melody and acoustic guitar and horns and a harp and bring in guest vocals and create a lot of textures and variety, yet still feel coherent. It still felt very much like our band. It didn’t feel like we were trying to reinvent ourselves for the sake of trying something new. It felt like a very organic progression. And it has a nice structure to it, and an intentionality—it’s bookended with the same lyrics, “I do not exist.” It’s aged well and it holds up well and I stand by the lyrics.
Michael: I love the fact that we were staring to explore a little bit more with the acoustic guitar, and I think we hit on something with “In A Sweater Poorly Knit.” It’s one of our best, I think. It has a lot of meat and potatoes to it, and it was a time in the band when we were doing so much amazing, cool stuff. We’d started to realize, after Catch for Us the Foxes, that we were actually a good band.
To me it sounds both like your most existential and spiritual album—it seems more overtly about your relationship with God than the other records.
Aaron: Yeah. That one and It’s All Crazy! were definitely the most straightforwardly focused on God and my understanding of God and my search for God. So it feels like they had more intensity. But I didn’t necessarily have as didactic a tone—when I listen back to some of the It’s All Crazy! Songs, it’s too heavy-handed in terms of moralizing and teaching and preaching and me trying to spoonfeed these spiritual concepts to people that, in retrospect, I don’t think I was really qualified to preach about. Certainly, there’s some preaching going on, but there’s also a lot of questioning and personal reflection. It’s not so heavy-handed with the morality tales.
Michael: We always try to incorporate some kind of concept through our records. It’s a sold, well-rounded representation of what we’ve done over the years and it’s us at our best sort of clicking on all cylinders.
There’s a wonderful juxtaposition between the insignificance of human existence – it’s both humbled and belittled by the presence of God, yet at the same time there’s this incredible presence of death which sits very heavily on that existence, which makes life feel incredibly significant. Does that make sense?
Aaron: It does make sense. And maybe that’s another reason I do like that one, because I tried to capture that the total enunciation of self or of any sense of self-abnegation or self-deprecation, but at the same time recognizing that there’s some kind of potential for an exalted existence, so there’s not this either overly hopeful or overly depressing tone. Some of my favorite moments in this band are when we’re able to go down to the depths and go as low as possible and hit a rock bottom and let go of everything and completely fail and fall apart, and yet at the end transcend that state and come back and see that there is still room for hope and for joy and for love, even in the face of everything that we experience.