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Making waves Denmark's Mew delivers eye-opening, impressive U.S. debut

In a post-modern world, anything goes. Form is challenged, accepted wisdom tossed out with the bathwater, previously adhered-to values and strictures -- both good and bad -- kicked to the curb. There is a tangible sense of possibility. There is also, where art is concerned, an awful lot of garbage blighting the landscape.

Eclecticism, a necessary byproduct of post-modernism, is a hoot. Freaks emerge from their cloisters to run amok in the streets, waving their individualistic banners proudly and loudly. Conservatism is shunned as limiting and close-minded, the way of the "old and in the way." "Break on through to the other side," screams the enlightened artist.

So this is nothing but a good thing, right? Theoretically, yes. But in practice . . . I'm not so sure.

In popular music, this decade -- the "nought-ies," because that's the best I can come up with -- is clearly one in which a post-modern dialectic is running wild. The '60s had everything; the '70s had prog-rock and some smart, nascent heavy metal; the '80s had the alternative- and college-music revolutions; the '90s had grunge, electronica, hip-hop and alt-country. The nought-ies have . . . a little bit of all of it. The trouble is, popular music is at its most exciting and effective when it is tied to some broader cultural movement, or at least, suggests some (at least slightly) unifying zeitgeist.

So far this decade, there has been much musical trash, a fair amount of good stuff and a handful of truly brilliant efforts from bold newcomers and seasoned types alike. But there's been nothing to unify any of it.

Waiting around for some sort of pop music messiah is not advisable. It's likely to be a long wait, and a closely watched kettle never seems to boil. The artist, or artists, who manage to shake us from our current postmodern torpor will have realized, consciously or otherwise, that in order to get in, you've got to get out. Therefore, the important stuff is not likely to sound like anything else in its immediate milieu.

Mew is a band from Denmark. Four guys playing music that can be loosely classified as rock. They use guitars, drums, bass, keyboards and vocals. Their music speaks of a vague existential discomfort. In this, Mew could be one of thousands of contemporary bands.

The devil is in the details, however, and it's the details that make Mew the first truly great band of the nought-ies. There is a template for pop music greatness, and Mew has followed it, so far. Almost invariably, the band or artist will have toiled in obscurity for a while, built up a strong regional following, released some brilliant music independently, garnered some drooling reviews from critics abundantly grateful for music that isn't the "same old thing" and, finally, come to the attention of a bigger record label.

More importantly, the artist will have run the influence of its time through a deeply personalized strainer and come up with something that sounds only passingly like those influences. We won't call this originality, per se, because being wholly so in popular music today is probably not possible. But this artist will have the mark, the stain of singularity.

Mew's "Frengers" -- a hybrid of "friends" and "strangers" -- got its U.S. release through Columbia records Tuesday. It will be pushed as a new album, though the record is going on 4 years old already, its U.K. and European release dating to April 2003. Even in its first incarnation, "Frengers" was indeed a re-release of sorts, featuring as it did new recordings of what were held to be the strongest songs from Mew's first two independently released albums, "A Triumph for Man" (1997) and "The World Is Watching Me" (2000).

That there is such a thing as the Danish Music Critics Awards is impressive enough, but that a relatively unknown band like Mew grabbed both the Band of the Year and Album of the Year honors at them is even more telling. The Danes must be on to something. This Mew stuff is pretty far from obvious. Hailing its virtues bears little resemblance to any bandwagon-hopping I've ever encountered.

So what is it? And what is the new zeitgeist it's representing/celebrating/forging? "Frengers" is trippy, weird, unconventional, emotional, smart, funny, quite musical, eager to flout convention and yet still recognizable as pop music. It could be the overdue dagger aimed at the heart of emo. It could be its generation's first "headphone album," a la "Dark Side of the Moon." Or maybe it's just a weird rock album that a bunch of critics in other countries are in love with, a disc that won't sell no matter how many nerds proclaim its significance. The good news is, anything can happen now, because nothing has been happening for so long. That feels like freedom.


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