Every mewithoutYou album, ranked
After a 20+ year career, mewithoutYou have sadly called it a day, after playing their last show ever in their hometown of Philly on August 20. They formed in the early 2000s and quickly benefited from the emo and post-hardcore boom of the era, and for many, they were "your favorite band's favorite band," having never gotten as commercially successful as most of the bigger bands of the era but were feverishly loved by several bands who did break through like Paramore, Thursday, Say Anything, Circa Survive, Thrice, and more. For others, they were simply your favorite band. mewithoutYou were truly the kind of band who could spark that kind of intense fandom. They were unlike any other band before or since; post-hardcore was their starting point, but mewithoutYou were an ever-shapeshifting band that went on to explore art rock, indie rock, post-rock, folk music, baroque pop, and more, and they always took an experimental approach to whatever genre they were working within. And even as they changed stylistically over the years, there were always through-lines connecting their newer material to their older material through recurring melodies, lyrics, and song titles. Aaron Weiss is a vocalist like no other, constantly varying between screaming, speaking, shouting, and singing in a manner that was entirely his own, and his approach to lyricism was just as singular. It should come as no surprise that a band whose first EP was named after a Leonard Cohen lyric had an interest in poetic lyricism, and Aaron also had an interest in religion that helped land the band a deal with Tooth & Nail Records, but the "Christian rock" stigma never followed mewithoutYou because it never fully described them in the first place. Aaron pulled influence from the texts of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, and he approached religion in a way that was personal, literary, and unpredictable. He and his brother Michael (mewithoutYou's guitarist) were raised by a Jewish-raised father and an Episcopalian-raised mother, who both had converted to Sufi Islam, and he started attending Christian church on his own as a teenager, so Aaron's experience with religion was wide-ranging and ever-growing, and mewithoutYou's music reflected that.
Behind Aaron's complex lyricism, the interlocking guitars of Aaron's brother Michael first with Christopher Kleinberg and then with Brandon Beaver were just as inventive as Aaron's vocals and defied expectations at every turn. Rickie Mazzotta held things down with drumming as forceful as it was melodic, and their bassists -- first Daniel Pishock and then Greg Jehanian -- locked in perfectly with Rickie while simultaneously providing thrilling counterpoints to the guitar work. They operated as a tight-knit unit, where each member's contributions were as crucial as the next. (And just as essential to mewithoutYou's career were their well-chosen producers and visual artist Vasily Kafanov, who painted all of their album covers.)
The phrase "ahead of its time" gets tossed around a lot in music criticism, but as mewithoutYou were coming into their own on now-classic albums like Catch For Us the Foxes and Brother, Sister, they earned it. They went overlooked and underrated by many during their early and middle years, but their influence extended to a new generation of musicians, leaving a profound impact on the likes of Touche Amore, La Dispute, TWIABP, Julien Baker, Foxing, Pianos Become the Teeth, Tigers Jaw, Balance & Composure, Hop Along, The Hotelier, and others who helped shape the new wave of post-hardcore and emo revival of the 2010s. As those bands helped course-correct a style of music that got chewed up by the mainstream, mewithoutYou kept making great music that fit in seamlessly with the new bands, and they eventually shared a record label (Run For Cover) and a producer (Will Yip) with many of them. Even now, mewithoutYou still feel underrated, but the love for them has grown louder and stronger over the years, and I suspect that'll keep happening after their breakup. Especially as an even newer generation of artists like Bartees Strange, The Callous Daoboys, and Kaonashi sing their praises.
With mewithoutYou's career now set in stone (probably), we're celebrating their career with a list of all of their albums and EPs, reviewed and ranked in order of greatness. mewithoutYou don't have any bad albums, so ranking them was not easy, and the ranking I came up with is just the highly subjective order of one longtime mewithoutYou fan, and probably an order that would slightly differ if I did this list again in five or ten years. I think some people see ranking albums as an inherently critical thing, something that's more negative than positive, but making this list was really just a labor of love, a fun way to engage with other mewithoutYou fans and hopefully help provide some kind of starting point for new ones. And more than anything else, I just wanted a way to commemorate one of the greatest to ever do it.
Read on for the list...
8. Ten Stories (2012)
Like I said above, mewithoutYou don't have bad albums, but even with a catalog as rock-solid as this one, something has to come in at the bottom, so for the purposes of this list, I'll just have to say Ten Stories is the least great mewithoutYou album. Still, even mewithoutYou's least great album is a great album, and Ten Stories marks a unique moment within mewithoutYou's discography and is home to some of their most iconic songs. It's a transitional album, one that seamlessly bridged the gap between its 2009 predecessor It's All Crazy! It's All False! It's All a Dream! It's Alright and its 2015 followup Pale Horses. The former marked the most drastic musical departure of mewithoutYou's career, leaving their usual post-hardcore-centric sound behind in favor of Neutral Milk Hotel-esque indie folk, while the latter looped back around to the classic mewithoutYou sound with fresh perspective. Ten Stories was right in the middle, sharing some folky vibes (and producer Daniel Smith of Danielson Famile) with It's All Crazy while acting almost like a prelude to the direction that Pale Horses would go in. Throughout its 11 songs (or 13 counting the two outtakes released as the Other Stories single), it varies between moments that expand upon It's All Crazy and moments that subtly rival their most popular songs.
Right from the start, Ten Stories opens with a song that perfectly encapsulates the sort of flux that mewithoutYou were in on this record, "February, 1878." It's one of the many callback songs in mewithoutYou's career, nodding to the one mewithoutYou song that even non-mewithoutYou fans might know, "January, 1979." "January, 1979" is one of the band's most accessible songs, and probably the closest they ever came to sounding anything like the poppy, punky emo bands on MTV, but "February, 1878" has a slower, lurching rhythm and splits the difference between Aaron Weiss' classic speak-shouting and the lighter, more whimsical direction of It's All Crazy. It also sets the stage for the lyrical narrative of Ten Stories, introducing characters (which are all animals) that reappear throughout the record. (Animal symbolism pops up a lot in mewithoutYou lyrics.) It proves that, even when mewithoutYou seem lighthearted and fantastical on the surface, their music can still be devastating. That becomes even more true as the album goes on; "Grist for the Malady Mill" continues down the path of whimsical animal tales and breezy acoustic guitars as the fidgety rhythms and darker electric guitar patterns give it the classic mewithoutYou twist. The Elephant from "February, 1878" returns on "Elephant In the Dock," a gentle song for mewithoutYou's standards, but when it reaches the "Hang the Elephant!" refrain, it's as dramatic and suspenseful as any of their best songs, and one of the most memorable hooks in the band's arsenal. And perhaps the album's most powerful weapon -- especially for fans of mid 2000s mewithoutYou -- is "Fox's Dream of the Log Flume." It channels the more forceful post-hardcore that the band is best known for without deviating too far from the album's earthier vibes, and it's got a remarkable guest appearance from one of the band's most famous fans, Paramore's Hayley Williams. (Hayley also lends her voice to album closer "All Circles," and she'd eventually feature Aaron Weiss on one of Paramore's albums, 2017's After Laughter. After they played their final show, she said, "No band ever mattered more to me than mewithoutYou.")
On the other side of the Ten Stories spectrum lies some of mewithoutYou's most lovely, tender, and playful songs. "East Enders Wives" is mewithoutYou at their most subtle, creating suspense for the entire song but never relying on an explosive climax to provide a release, and it's just as effective as their heaviest moments. The wondrous "Cardiff Giant," the rousing folk rock of "Fiji Mermaid," and the campfire singalong of closing track "All Circles" all feel like extensions of what mewithoutYou first created on It's All Crazy. And with an album that's full of different stories and characters, Aaron Weiss isn't the only one telling them. In addition to Hayley Williams, guest singers Aimee Wilson and Amy Carrigan appear throughout the album, providing counterpoint to Aaron's unmistakable voice and adding range to the album's narratives. Together, mewithoutYou and their collaborators create a universe that's vast, immersive, and defied expectations that even their biggest fans had at the time. It's a great record, and the music on this list only gets even better from here.
7. I Never Said That I Was Brave (2001)
Aaron Weiss said in a recent interview that "the spoken-word thing was a lack of confidence for writing melody, and for our quieter songs, screaming and shouting didn't seem appropriate," but on their 2001 debut EP I Never Said That I Was Brave, screaming was Aaron's main mode of delivery. It's the hardest, heaviest, rawest thing they've ever done, more in touch with their hardcore and post-hardcore (and even metalcore) roots than any of their full-length albums, and it's no surprise that it quickly stirred up buzz for mewithoutYou; even two decades later, it stands tall next to their biggest records. These five songs are fairly straightforward as far as mewithoutYou songs go, pretty indebted to their influences and similar to a lot of other Y2K-era post-hardcore stuff, but even still, you can hear the makings of a great band all throughout this EP. The band is insanely tight, as the bare-bones, what-you-hear-is-what-you-get production makes very clear, and you can already tell that Aaron is a distinctive vocalist and lyricist, even if he'd yet to develop most of the calling cards of his trademark style. The sludgy, almost slowcore-ish title track and the fast, punky "We Know Who Our Enemies Are" were both re-worked for mewithoutYou's debut full-length [A→B] Life, but it's a treat to hear the more primitive versions on this EP, and even if EP closer "Four Word Letter" is substantially topped by Catch For Us the Foxes standout "Four Word Letter (Pt. Two)," it's thrilling to hear the raw source material for one of mewithoutYou's most widely loved songs. And it's also just thrilling to hear mewithoutYou offer up their take on familiar post-hardcore tropes. If "mewithoutYou with panic chords" sounds like something you wish you had in your life, maybe you haven't heard "Drying Is Strange and Hard." For mewithoutYou you can headbang to, there's "Flamethrower." I Never Said That I Was Brave sounds more like a product of its time than any other mewithoutYou release, but this EP also has the benefit of being part of a scene that's being revived in a big way today. If this EP dropped by some new band tomorrow, there'd be a lot of talk about them in the heavy music underground. Just like there was for mewithoutYou in 2001.
6. It's All Crazy! It's All False! It's All a Dream! It's Alright (2009)
In the beginning of the 2000s, post-hardcore and emo bands were getting swept up by the mainstream in ways they never were before or since. Bands were going from basements to MTV in the blink of an eye, and the more popularity this type of music got, the more the scene/genre became oversaturated with bands who took this music in directions that the late '90s and early 2000s innovators wanted nothing to do with. You started to see a lot of early adapters of post-hardcore and emo making drastic stylistic changes, sometimes in an effort to distance themselves from the cringe, or to prove they were capable of more than one thing, or just because they were more interested in following their hearts than following trends. Whatever mewithoutYou's reasoning was, they were one of those bands, and they made the most drastic musical departure of their career with 2009's It's All Crazy! It's All False! It's All a Dream! It's Alright. It was the followup to their post-hardcore/art rock classic, Brother, Sister, and not that Brother, Sister is conventional by any means, but It's All Crazy wasn't even tangentially related to the type of music you'd find at Warped Tour. It was co-produced by Daniel Smith of indie folk-pop collective Danielson Famile (who shared mewithoutYou's interest in religion-based lyrics), and it was stylistically similar to groups like Danielson and Neutral Milk Hotel and The Decemberists, not to any band you'd call "post-hardcore." Aaron all but completely abandons his usual shouted style, favoring a softly-sung, melodic approach for almost the entire album. The band's usual dual electric guitar approach is replaced by strummy acoustic guitars, strings, horns, bells, and accordions, all swirling together to create a baroque-folk backdrop. Aaron's lyrics were as wide-ranging as ever, pulling from from Christianity, the Hebrew bible, Aesop's fables, the teachings of Sufi mystic Bawa Muhaiyaddeen (who penned the quote that the album is named after), and more, and incorporating a greater amount of Arabic lyrics. Whatever you thought you knew about mewithoutYou, this album challenged it.
Being the departure that it was, It's All Crazy! It's All False! It's All a Dream! It's Alright was divisive amongst fans, but if you take It's All Crazy for what it is, rather than compare it to what old fans wanted it to be, these are some of the strongest songs they've ever written. I'd also argue it wasn't as unexpected after Brother, Sister as some fans made it out to be, and it also was a necessary move for mewithoutYou that helped them establish the longevity needed to propel them into the following decade. Brother, Sister already hinted at folk music and baroque pop with its acoustic guitars, accordions, horns, and harp, and It's All Crazy picked up where those moments left off. Folk music would remain a constant influence on mewithoutYou's songwriting even as they returned to writing heavier songs on later albums, and by the end of their career, they'd have more albums that do incorporate folk music than those that don't. They were also very good at being an indie folk band, and It's All Crazy might've come at a weird time for the Warped Tour scene, but it came at a great time for indie folk. It came right around the time that indie folk artists like Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, The Decemberists and other Dark Was the Night-ers were at the forefront of indie, and mewithoutYou's take on the genre was right up there with the best of them.
The first song on It's All Crazy, "Every Thought A Thought of You," is one of the best songs mewithoutYou ever released and a song only they could've written. It's powered by a bouncy, lightly distorted keyboard, giving Rickie Mazzotta the opportunity to put his usual hop in the band's step, even as they explore softer, more melodic territory. It's not even necessarily folk or indie pop or whatever; it's just mewithoutYou. The especially Neutral Milk Hotel-y "The Fox, The Crow and The Cookie" remains one of the brightest, catchiest, most immediate songs they'd ever released, and album closer "Allah, Allah, Allah" is the biggest campfire singalong in their catalog, a song you only have to hear once to join in with. The album finds mewithoutYou at their prettiest and most tender on songs like "The Angel of Death Came to David's Room" and "Fig With A Bellyache," and still finds ways to get explosive, like on the climax of "Timothy Hay." It also shows how far they'd come in the first decade of their career with "Bullet To Binary (Pt. Two)." "Bullet to Binary" is one of the heaviest songs on mewithoutYou's debut album, but its sequel is an acoustic-based folk dirge that's nothing like the [A→B] Life days. It has almost the same effect as when The Beatles brought back "She Loves You" at the end of "All You Need Is Love," providing a through-line to the earlier material but reminding you the band is not content to stay in the realm where they began.
5. Pale Horses (2015)
It's All Crazy! It's All False! It's All a Dream! It's Alright and Ten Stories were necessary departures; mewithoutYou needed to take a few unexpected left turns in order to end up back on the path they began forging with Catch For Us the Foxes and Brother, Sister. And that's what they did almost a decade after Brother, Sister with 2015's Pale Horses, an album I hesitate to call a "return to form" because that undersells it; they needed to cleanse their palette and learn new tricks with It's All Crazy and Ten Stories so they could re-approach their most classic sound with fresh perspective and previously untapped potential. The thing I hate about these ranked lists is I don't want to imply that their folky period was less important than their other periods -- it wasn't, and it's completely crucial to getting the whole mewithoutYou picture -- but mewithoutYou were at their very best when they combined their art rock ambitions and their post-hardcore energy in ways that no other band has done before or since. On Pale Horses, they reminded the world for the first time in nearly a decade that they could still do that.
When mewithoutYou released Ten Stories, the bands that their classic records had directly inspired -- bands like La Dispute, Touche Amore, TWIABP, etc -- had begun making noise in the underground, but those bands hadn't really crossed over outside of their small niches yet. But by 2015, the new wave of post-hardcore and emo revival bands had become the interest of major music publications, major music festivals, and bigger record labels, so the timing was perfect for mewithoutYou to make a comeback of sorts. They ended up signing to the one of the core labels of the new generation of emo/post-hardcore (Run For Cover), working with one of that generation's core producers (Will Yip), and embracing the style of music that influenced that new generation of bands in the first place. That same year, they got their first Pitchfork review (a complimentary 7.2). I'm not suggesting that mewithoutYou made these decisions to reclaim their throne or get re-evaluated or increase their popularity or anything, but I am saying that they happened to make all of these decisions at exactly the right time, in exactly the right place, and it absolutely helped cement their legacy not just as an influence on those bands, but as a current force to be reckoned with.
Again, I don't think it really makes sense to call Pale Horses a "return to form" because it's more than that. It does embrace the art rock/post-hardcore blend of Catch For Us the Foxes and Brother, Sister for the first time since those albums, but it also incorporates a lot of what mewithoutYou explored on It's All Crazy and Ten Stories. It still has those lighter, folkier, and more whimsical moments that those latter albums had, and it has much more melodic clean-singing from Aaron than CFUTF and Brother, Sister did. At this point in mewithoutYou's career, Aaron had developed a knack for seamlessly weaving between singing and speak-shouting, as he showed off remarkably on highlights like "Watermelon Ascot," "Mexican War Streets," and "Blue Hen." Pale Horses is also noteworthy not just for having mewithoutYou's heaviest songs since the mid 2000s, but some of their heaviest songs ever; the album's centerpiece is "Red Cow," which explodes into a chorus that borders on sludge metal, and they bring back a similar slowed-down, ten-ton riff style during the coda of album closer "Rainbow Signs." At the same time, the jangly, folky "Magic Lantern Days" and the quiet, drifting "Dorothy" could've fit right in on Ten Stories. Pale Horses reaffirmed that every part of mewithoutYou is an important part; they aren't just [A→B] Life or just Brother, Sister or just It's All Crazy; they're all of those things, and Pale Horses touched on just about all of it.
For alternate versions and other bonus tracks from the era, also check out Pale Horses: Appendix.
4. [A→B] Life (2002)
mewithoutYou made noise in the post-hardcore scene with their debut EP I Never Said That I Was Brave, but it wasn't until a year later, with their first full-length, that they'd really begin to leave their mark. It's a massive leap forward from the EP, it presents mewithoutYou as a wholly unique band, and it frequently hints at the even more experimental music that was to come. But, unlike any mewithoutYou album after this one, it's still pretty firmly rooted within the already-established post-hardcore genre. It's got echoes of bands like Fugazi and At the Drive-In, and it was produced by one of the architects of post-hardcore: Jawbox vocalist J. Robbins. And no mewithoutYou full-length was ever rawer or heavier than this one. Aaron screams more than he ever would again, and he also makes the first steps towards developing the spoken word-inspired style that would become his calling card. The band's arrangements would get more intricate over time, but on [A→B] Life, mewithoutYou were concerned with creating a full-blown attack in a way they never were again. This album dishes out rhythms meant to induce mosh pits, heavy chords meant to shake walls, and discordant melodies meant to create tension. At the same time, it's already clear on this album that mewithoutYou were never going to be your average post-hardcore band.
Just as the folky vibes of It's All Crazy! It's All False! It's All a Dream! It's Alright are crucial to getting the full mewithoutYou picture, so is the heavy post-hardcore of [A→B] Life. And no matter how much they evolved over time, and how many new fans they attracted with later material, [A→B] Life always remained home to some of the band's most loved songs. Opener "Bullet To Binary" doesn't just have echoes of classic Dischord-style post-hardcore; it rivals just about any of those bands to this day. From its handclaps to its melodic chorus, "The Ghost" is low-key one of their catchiest songs. "Nice and Blue" isn't totally up to par with "Nice and Blue (Pt. Two)," which is one of mewithoutYou's very best songs, but it birthed some of the same melodies and lyrics and it's always a treat to listen to this one and compare it to its even better sequel. "Gentleman" is one of mewithoutYou's most suspenseful songs, and the build-and-release of "Silencer" made that song one of their most cathartic. [A→B] Life also has excellent reworked versions of two I Never Said That I Was Brave songs (the title track and "We Know Who Our Enemies Are"), and it has post-rocky moments on songs like "Everything Was Beautiful And Nothing Hurt" and "The Cure For Pain" that, in hindsight, were setting the stage for [A→B] Life's artsier followups. I'd say most mewithoutYou fans agree that the band got even better after this LP, but [A→B] Life has its true believers, and it's not hard to see why. When you want mewithoutYou at their most corroded, discordant, and heaviest, nothing scratches the itch better than [A→B] Life.
3. [Untitled] & [untitled] (2018)
2015's Pale Horses was the culmination of almost everything that mewithoutYou had done up to that point, and the moment that they re-incorporated their most loved, most trademark sound for the first time in nearly a decade, and it helped hit the reset button on mewithoutYou's career. Once that button had been hit, they returned with [Untitled], an album that made a significant leap forward. In a way, [Untitled] feels like the mewithoutYou album that so many of their fans had been waiting for since Brother, Sister. It captures everything about what made mewithoutYou a band like no other, and it pushed them to places they'd never gone before. It helped reaffirm that the people who believed in mewithoutYou were right all along, that this really was a special, powerful, innovative band, that they were more than part of a passing moment or a fleeting scene. [Untitled] hit just as hard in 2018 as the band's classic records did 10-15 years earlier. That's no easy feat for any band, especially one who got lumped in with a scene that a lot of people thought had died years earlier.
If you've read this far, you may have noticed that I included nods to Other Stories and Pale Horses: Appendix in the writeups for Ten Stories and Pale Horses, respectively, but in this case I included the accompanying [untitled] EP alongside the [Untitled] full-length in the header above. This was intentional; unlike Other Stories and Pale Horses: Appendix, the [untitled] EP never felt like "extras" from the [Untitled] album, other than an acoustic version of "Winter Solstice," these aren't alternate versions of album tracks, and the EP was actually released first. Combined with the LP, it's a total of 19 songs, and it feels more like a double album (or a one-and-a-half album) than an album with bonus tracks. Unlike any of their previous albums, these 19 songs came out of writing sessions where the band just tried to write as much material as they could, without thinking about how it would fit on a specific release, and Aaron says that, while they did prioritize the LP in the end, they "did want the EP to stand alone as being interesting and exciting in some way, in its own regard." That this ended up being the band's final release(s) is even more reason to look at it as one big project. In the past, mewithoutYou were known for meticulously crafted concept albums, but for their swan song, they threw a whole lot of new shit at the wall and found that all of it stuck.
Aaron has said that his brother Michael, who'd written so much of the band's music, "was really committed to pushing himself to try to write in different ways and get different sounds and not rely on some of the same old tropes that he had relied on in the past," and it really shows. Pale Horses might have marked mewithoutYou's return to heavy music, but [Untitled] opener "9:27a.m., 7/29" does that on a whole other level; it's the band's most caustic song since [A→B] Life, and not in a way they'd ever sounded before. The next song, "Julia (or, 'Holy to the LORD' on the Bells of Horses)," is even more different for mewithoutYou, and in the four years since it's release, it's become one of my top three or four mewithoutYou songs ever. It's sort of their take on Hum-style heavy shoegaze, but in the way that only mewithoutYou could do, with some of the most gorgeous melodies they've ever written, one of their most stunning lead guitar patterns, and harsh shrieks from Aaron at the end that rival the band's heaviest work. [Untitled] further explores mewithoutYou's heavy side on songs like "Another Head for Hydra" and "Wendy & Betsy," but the LP & EP actually spend even more time honing the band's lighter side, and it does so in a way that feels distinctly mewithoutYou. The lighter songs on [Untitled] don't feel like departures from the heavy songs; they feel like foils for them. Every moment on this album is crucial, and the sum is truly greater than its parts.
It's rare that an album can sound entirely new for a band, but also sound like no other band in the world, but [Untitled] is one of those albums. The entire band tests their own limits, using the familiar tools they'd spent nearly two decades sharpening to create soundscapes unlike any of their others. Aaron uses every vocal trick he's got -- singing, speaking, shouting, screaming -- and he's at the top of his game on all of these songs. Both he and the rest of the band bring some of the most compelling melodies they'd ever written to this album, and Aaron's lyrics are as vivid and complex as ever. It's sad to see mewithoutYou break up after releasing such a monumental album, but it's also a treat to watch them go out on such a high note. Too often we see bands lose steam towards the end and fizzle out; mewithoutYou did the opposite. They released an album that cemented their legacy in an even more substantial way than it had already been cemented.
Pick up the EP on purple vinyl.
2. Catch For Us the Foxes (2004)
mewithoutYou made a lot of leaps in their career, but none more significant than the one from their 2002 debut LP [A→B] Life to their 2004 sophomore album Catch For Us the Foxes. In just two years, mewithoutYou elevated themselves from a great post-hardcore band to one of the most distinct rock bands of a generation. Catch For Us the Foxes is, for many fans (and certainly for me), the album where mewithoutYou fully created and solidified their trademark sound.
Catch For Us the Foxes was mewithoutYou's first of two consecutive albums with producer Brad Wood (whose past credits included such iconic albums as Sunny Day Real Estate's Diary and Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville), and Brad helped give the band a warm, spacious, timeless production quality, and the more pristine sound is just what they needed for the growing ambition and experimentation in their songwriting. Catch For Us the Foxes polished up the abrasive attack of mewithoutYou's earlier releases but retained their heavier post-hardcore traits, fusing them with their newfound art rock sensibilities. It's a record that shares as much DNA with Relationship of Command as it does with OK Computer, and it's just as distinct as both of those albums. mewithoutYou still found plenty of times to get heavy on Catch For Us the Foxes, but their arrangements felt a lot more considered than they were on the more downright aggressive [A→B] Life. Michael Weiss and Christopher Kleinberg developed an interlocking guitar style that sounded like a patchwork quilt of riffs, chords, and arpeggios, always blurring the lines between lead and rhythm. Daniel Pishock's basslines didn't just exist to add extra force; his bass sounded like it was in constant conversation with the guitars, while fitting Rickie Mazzotta's thoughtful drum patterns like a lock and key. Aaron was at his most commanding, solidifying the blend of speaking, shouting, singing, and screaming that separated mewithoutYou from every one of their peers, and nailing the balance between complex, in-depth lyricism and memorable one-liners that's made him such a compelling lyricist over the years. He'd come up with a remarkable way of combining Biblical imagery with personal introspection, and his clear delivery made every word land with impact. And just as crucial as Aaron's unique speak-shouting were the melodic backing vocals that mewithoutYou perfected on Catch For Us the Foxes. On top of everything else that CFUTF had, it also had choruses, with songs like "January, 1979" and "Paper Hanger" giving mewithoutYou hooks that even the most casual listener could hum along to.
Catch For Us the Foxes is one of those albums where every move feels deliberate; from the sequencing, to the arrangements, to every last word out of Aaron Weiss' mouth, you get the sense that no stone was left unturned during the making of this masterpiece. And it's an album where every band member is contributing a necessary piece of the puzzle at every moment. The opening march of "Torches Together" couldn't exist without all the instruments coming together in the seamless way that they do; the drums are just as melodic as the guitars, and the guitars are just as percussive as the drums. "Tie Me Up! Untie Me!" would never swing the way it does without the groovy bassline acting as mediator between the drums and guitars. "Paper Hanger" wouldn't have the suspense and release of a seat-gripping mystery if every single member of mewithoutYou wasn't feeding off one another with an almost telepathic chemistry. Throughout all of this successful experimentation, mewithoutYou pushed themselves in an array of new directions; Catch For Us the Foxes is home to some of the heaviest moments of mewithoutYou's career, and it also begins their trek though exploring softer sounds, giving Aaron the opportunity to perfect his more melodic singing voice. It has songs that are nearly unclassifiable, and it also has the one mewithoutYou song that almost sounded like a straightforward post-hardcore/emo song, "January, 1979." From its driving drums and guitars to its sneakily bouncy bassline to Aaron's finger-pointing shoutalongs to its easily hummable chorus, "January, 1979" became the one mewithoutYou song that even non-fans might recognize. It was an easy entry point for many (and probably still is), and once it drew you in to Catch For Us the Foxes, it opened you up to a musical universe unlike almost any other.
1. Brother, Sister (2006)
In many ways, Catch For Us the Foxes and its 2006 followup Brother, Sister feel like two sides of the same coin. They were both produced by Brad Wood, they both have an overall similar sound and aesthetic, and I would be willing to bet that most mewithoutYou fans would pick one of these two as their favorite. Catch For Us the Foxes gets the credit for starting it all, for being the band's biggest breakthrough, and for birthing several of the band's most classic and widely-loved songs, but as fantastic as that album is, I'd say they topped it with Brother, Sister.
Catch For Us the Foxes has a deliberate, masterful sequencing, and it probably counts as a concept album (a lot of mewithoutYou albums do), but no mewithoutYou album flows like one grand statement the way Brother, Sister does. They still sounded like a post-hardcore band with art rock sensibilities, but the album flowed like Sgt. Pepper's or Pet Sounds. The album starts and ends with the same lyric ("I do not exist"), songs segue directly into each other, melodies and words and themes reoccur throughout the album, and there's a clear beginning, middle, and end; Brother, Sister is structured more like a novel or a film than a collection of rock songs. And while Catch For Us the Foxes blurred the lines between art rock and post-hardcore, it did so within the confines of the band's classic electric guitar/bass/drums setup; Brother, Sister branches out into folk music, baroque pop, and more, incorporating acoustic guitars, accordion, horns, harp, and a field recording of rain. There's no one album that represents the full scope of mewithoutYou's catalog, but this one comes close.
Letting you know right off the bat that Brother, Sister is in a different ballpark than its predecessor, it opens with "Messes of Men," a song that sounds closer to The Decemberists' folk-rock sea shanties than to early mewithoutYou, and peppers its nautical themes with references to literature, other music, Aaron's personal life, and multiple religious poems and teachings. At that point in their career, Aaron's singing voice had never been used more prominently or effectively, and the melodic, folky song not only suited mewithoutYou perfectly, it also served as the album's grand introduction. Near the song's end, the band's usual electric guitar/bass/drums formula kicks in, and mewithoutYou settle into a hypnotic groove that transitions directly into the next track, "The Dryness and the Rain," a song that pushes the art rock/post-hardcore of Catch For Us the Foxes in exciting new directions. It finds guitarists Michael Weiss and Christopher Kleinberg, drummer Rickie Mazzotta, and then-new bassist Greg Jehanian further exploring the interlocked instrumentation of the band's previous album, as Aaron further perfects his commanding delivery and complex lyrical approach. And on Brother, Sister, mewithoutYou didn't just share a producer with Sunny Day Real Estate; this time they brought in the band's vocalist, Jeremy Enigk, who joins them on the Arabic-sung chorus of "The Dryness and the Rain," adding greater depth, range, and harmony to the band's sound, and coming out with one of the most gorgeous hooks this band ever put to tape.
The transition from "The Dryness and the Rain" into "Wolf Am I! (and Shadow)" is another seamless one, and after the folky opener and the celestial second track, "Wolf Am I!" proved mewithoutYou could still get heavy and rock out without losing sight of their more artistic sensibilities. That one goes right into "Yellow Spider," the first of the album's three "Spider" songs, which also include "Orange Spider" (track 8) and "Brownish Spider" (track 12). All three share the same melody and hook, but each has a different arrangement; "Yellow" is fueled by accordion and acoustic guitar, "Orange" by acoustic guitar, horns, and "dah dah dah dah" backing vocals, and "Brownish" by harp (performed by Timbre). The songs are a big part of Brother, Sister's "concept album" structure, and they're also gorgeous folky passages that -- along with "Messes of Men" -- strongly foreshadowed the direction of mewithoutYou's next two albums.
The "Spider" songs also sort of break the album up into different loosely defined acts, and the end of "Yellow Spider" is the first time that Brother, Sister offers a moment of silence between songs. It's followed by three of the best, most iconic, and most distinct songs mewithoutYou ever wrote, beginning with the immortal "A Glass Can Only Spill What It Contains." Lyrically, the song is full of literary and religious references, animal symbolism, and -- as used very effectively on the song's titular line -- metaphor. Musically, the verses find Rickie Mazzotta and Greg Jehanian locking in, creating a tight-knit rhythm section that fuels the song as Michael Weiss and Christopher Kleinberg focus more on texture than rock-oriented guitar work. When the chorus kicks in, the script is flipped, and mewithoutYou remind you how good of a riff band they are. That continues on "Nice and Blue (Pt. Two)," the superior sequel to [A→B] Life highlight "Nice and Blue." When I make OK Computer comparisons to this band, it's not just because of the way they push boundaries, shift shape, and put the listener in a daze; it's also because songs like these can riff as hard as "Paranoid Android." On "Nice and Blue (Pt. Two)," mewithoutYou go from driving to grooving at the drop of a hat, Aaron dishes out some of his most memorable lyricism as the band back him up with swooning "ahhh ahhh"s, and mewithoutYou's ability to let their backup singers power the chorus as Aaron delivers his shouted screeds is as effective here as it is on "January, 1979." This section ends with the album's centerpiece, "The Sun and the Moon." Brother, Sister has no actual title track, but "The Sun and the Moon" kind of functions as one; both the album title and this song ostensibly pull from "Canticle of the Sun," and the sun and moon theme is prominently reflected in Vasily Kafanov's painting that graces the album cover. "The Sun and the Moon" is also one of Brother, Sister's most melodic songs, with no screaming or shouting at all, but still delivered in the plugged-in rock format.
"The Sun and the Moon" served as a reminder that their folky songs weren't their only pretty songs, and Brother, Sister's final section continued down a similar path. "C-Minor" has some of the album's loveliest melodies and harmonies, and it all culminates in one of the album's most climactic codas, the one where the band repeats "it never ends" in perfect harmony. "In A Market Dimly Lit" combines their more gentle, accordion-fueled side with their heavy, riffy post-hardcore side, and it's got some of the band's most stunning guitar work and most memorable hooks. "O, Porcupine" is one of those songs where each member of the band feels like a necessary organism in a greater ecosystem, where each person is doing a small part in creating something that no individual could re-create on their own. It's also the second song on the album with guest vocals by Jeremy Enigk, and Jeremy's appearance is even more show-stopping this time. Over lush, wordless harmonies, Jeremy delivers some of the most impassioned scream-singing that he ever has, making for a startling foil to Aaron's speak-shouting.
"O, Porcupine" leads seamlessly into the final "Spider" song -- "Brownish Spider" with harpist Timbre -- and that leads seamlessly into the album's closer, "In A Sweater Poorly Knit," which is also assisted by Timbre. Just as "Messes of Men" is the perfect introductory song to Brother, Sister, "In A Sweater Poorly Knit" is the perfect closer. It's a mini baroque/art rock epic of its own, and -- for my money -- the best song mewithoutYou have ever written. It gives you almost everything this band is capable of, and it stuns no matter how many times you listen to it. Its shimmering intro leads into nothing but Aaron and a strummy acoustic guitar, a moment that's gorgeous in its simplicity. As Aaron reaches the "The trap I set for you seems to have caught my leg instead" refrain, the full band and Timbre's harp kick in, and mewithoutYou use their post-hardcore aesthetic to create baroque pop bliss. As they return to the second verse, Michael and Christopher's distorted electric guitars mimic a cello, creating more and more suspense in the process. As the second refrain kicks in, accordion enters, followed by falsetto harmony "ahhhs," creating something that a young Brian Wilson would have been proud of. In the final refrain, Aaron and the backing vocalists harmonize together, repeating the album's first line, "I do not exist" (and then adding, "only You exist," presumably the same capital-Y "You" in their band name). They eventually fade out, leaving nothing but Timbre's harp in the mix. To keep the Sgt. Pepper's/Pet Sounds comparison going, this is "A Day in the Life" or "Caroline, No" for the post-hardcore scene. It's that climactic, and it leaves me speechless every single time.
mewithoutYou made so much great music throughout their career, but Brother, Sister was the pinnacle, a near-perfect, boundary-pushing musical journey unparalleled not just by most others in the post-hardcore community but in underground rock in general. It's an album that belongs in the same conversation as any handful of canonized alternative rock classics, including many of the ones referenced throughout this article. mewithoutYou stuck around for another 15+ years after this album, and they continued to make great records that defied expectations and explored unchartered territory; Brother, Sister is my favorite, but its placement at #1 on this list shouldn't imply that later or earlier records are less worthwhile. mewithoutYou are one of those bands where every move they made mattered, and every era of their career is worth exploring. Brother, Sister was simply the moment that the stars aligned for mewithoutYou more perfectly than ever, and where mewithoutYou pushed themselves to make an album far grander than most would've expected from a mid 2000s post-hardcore band. It exceeded probably even their own expectations.
mewithoutYou also featured in:
Read past and future editions of 'In Defense of the Genre' here.