Two years ago, in the spring, my wife and I were planning a move to New York City. We didn’t have jobs or even a sense of where in the vast region we should live. All we knew was that Steph was starting graduate school in the fall.
I was scared. I know that many “moving to New York” stories don’t tell you this, but it is scary. It’s scary to make a move toward the unknown in any situation, but when the unknown is New York City, the trepidation multiplies.
This experience might have been completely unbearable if it hadn’t been for a happy accident in the month of May. As a last assignment in the freshmen writing course I was teaching I asked my students to write an evaluation essay, a review – music, film, book – anything. I love this assignment because it is fun for the students and I get to learn about new albums, movies, and books. One student took it upon herself to review the then latest album by mewithoutYou, “Brother, Sister.”
I had heard of the band from a friend who thought, correctly, that I would like them. He showed me “January 1979” from “Catch for Us the Foxes,” and though I thought it was great, I didn’t get around to purchasing the record or following up on the band. But after reading my student’s review, which was very well written (I hope I gave her an A), I downloaded “Brother, Sister” immediately.
That album, in no small way, made the move to NYC not only possible, but truly a life changing experience. There is a refrain that both opens and closes the record and is weaved throughout; Aaron Weiss, the lead vocalist, proclaims, “I do not exist.” Concluding in the last track, “In A Sweater Poorly Knit,” “Only you exist.”
I’m not sure why this refrain had such an impact, or continues to move me so strongly. Something about getting myself out of the way felt right and made our move easier. Coincidentally, the very month we arrived, after I found a job through a set of miraculous circumstances and we fell in love with our new neighborhood, mewithoutYou was playing a show at Maxwells in Hoboken. Here I learned my first lesson about the music scene in NYC: tickets must be bought far in advance. The show was sold out. I would have to wait for my chance to see them live.
Last night, the wait ended. I arrived at the Bowery Ballroom in the middle of the set of the second opening band, Murder by Death. I was a little confused by the pairing, both sonically and lyrically, but enjoyed their tunes all the same. After they cleared the stage and the guys from mewithoutYou began to set up, the whole feeling of the room changed. Interspersed between plugging in amps and tuning guitars, the members of the band, brothers Aaron and Michael Weiss, bassist Greg Jehanian and drummer Rickie Mazzotta, hugged, joked, danced and laughed together.
They opened the set the same way they open “Brother, Sister,” Weiss strains, “I do not exist…” from the song “Messes of Men.” Over the course of the next hour they played songs spanning their discography, hardly ever even stopping between songs, but still long enough to hear an audience member shout, “I love you,” or “Peace be with you.” To which, Aaron responded, of course, “And also with you.”
There is nothing cool about the way mewithoutYou look on stage. The brothers Weiss dress like office workers that would be more comfortable in a Midwest commercial park, than on the stage of a rock club. They play what has been described as post-hardcore, but don’t expect to see any long hair and headbanging. The way that Weiss screams out his lyrics isn’t an effort to “be rock and roll,” but because sometimes you feel so much that screaming is the only option. There is no false composure, no pretense – by the time the set ended Aaron was such a sweaty mess that his shirt was three shades darker than it had been at the beginning. But that lack of pretense is precisely what is most appealing about the band. In a word, they are sincere.
And their fans are equally sincere. The floor of the Bowery Ballroom last night was a sea of mismatched styles and scenes. There, the requisite tattooed hipsters gently moshed (I would’ve never thought such a thing was possible) with preppy girls and guys dressed in athletic jerseys. They were all united in their appreciation for the band’s heartbreaking genuineness.
I half expected mewithoutYou to forego the terribly un-genuine skit that every contemporary rock band plays wherein they pretend to play their last song so the crowd will call for an encore, but perhaps this is just too entrenched. What they did do, however, is let the audience know before they launched into their last tune that it would, indeed, be their finale. And that last song was, of course, “In A Sweater Poorly Knit.” That same resolution to the question of existence that haunts “Brother, Sister” finally came at the end of the show. “Only you exist.”
Christopher Cocca, a friend and Patrol contributor used the phrase “the New Sincerity” in an article he wrote about Conan O’Brien’s final show on NBC for The Huffington Post. He points to O’Brien’s closing comments in which he pleaded with his audience to not be cynical, as a very public indication that the New Sincerity is materializing in popular culture. There can be no question that mewithoutYou is also on the frontlines of this movement.
Just as they helped me get over my fear and make the move to New York City, through their music, as well as through the way they present themselves, they are helping all of us make the move away from the cynical irony that dominated popular culture in the latter half of the twentieth century , and toward honesty, earnestness and sincerity.
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