The Mathletes, Excalibur

The Mathletes, Excalibur

I’m not sure what happened, but I’m pretty sure something did, somewhere along the way. The last time The Mathletes — which is generally, for all intents and purposes, singer/songwriter Joe Mathlete, although I’m told they’re a real-live “band” again, these days — put out an album (that wasn’t a CD-R, mind you), 2008’s #$@% You and Your Cool, I was bowled over both by the sheer energy of it all and the almost childlike sense of wonderment. There were embittered unicorns and angst-ridden robots and asteroid strikes, and it was pretty awesome.

Don’t fret; Excalibur, The Mathletes’ latest, is awesome, too. It’s awesome, though, in a very different way. The funny characters are gone, replaced by real people living out their lives and fighting and falling in (and out) of love and hurting. It’s like Joe decided it was time to put the that other stuff aside and talk about what was really going on; it feels like he’s saying, I’m done with the puppets, here’s the real me.

It’s a fairly massive shift, when you think about it, which is why I think there must’ve been some event or series of events that led to Excalibur. #$@% You and Your Cool was belligerent from the very start — hell, from its name, for crying out loud — all bitterness and raw, cut-open fury, the likes of which doesn’t often come through in a simple pop song.

By contrast, Excalibur feels like the aftermath, like there’s acceptance underway. It’s the sound of somebody who’s been hurt, badly, and has picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and realized it was time to re-evaluate things. And the album’s title almost seems like a clue, too; in the excellently quirky, ridiculously elaborate zine/comic/liner notes, Joe confesses that “Excalibur” was the name of a house where he used to live. This album’s about history and moving on from it.

In spite of his near-constant downplaying of his songwriting abilities — seriously, the guy’s self-deprecating to the point where it almost makes me want to whap him upside the head and make him say “I am a freaking incredible songwriter” ten times and mean it — The Mathletes pull it off beautifully. The songs here are wonderfully human, the sort of dealing-with-one-another songs that maybe you don’t necessarily get the first time around but that haunt you for years to come.

Take “Reasonable,” for one example, near the end of the album. It’s a cautionary breakup song of sorts, where a resigned, rueful Joe shakes his head and warns, “you’re going to have to see me again” — because, naturally, that’s always how it goes. You may not be dating somebody anymore, but you’ve still got a lot of the same friends, and short of some kind of War of the Roses-style insanity where you split them all down the middle, you’re still going to have to deal with running into the ex at parties or wherever else. It’s a simple line, but it makes perfect, absolute sense.

Along similar lines, there’s “Hopscotch,” where Joe tries to warn the person to whom the song’s directed, somebody with whom he’s definitely got some history, not to get suckered in by what their family thinks or what some random older man says. It’s a half-hearted warning, though, given like he knows full well that it won’t be heeded, and at the end Joe shrugs and turns to walk away, saying essentially, “you know where I am if you need me.”

At the other end, with “Chivalry 2000,” the mild-mannered guy’s finally decided to stand up, getting in the face of some asshole who’s nowhere near good enough for the girl he’s with. I love the righteous fire in his voice on that one; it’s like the nerdy, shy-guy version of Priestess’s “Talk To Her,” with the narrator warning that the unnamed Guy With The Girl had better get it right or find her gone.

It’s not all strictly about love-gone-wrong, of course, as evidenced by “Good Advice and Bad Advice for Romantics Who Think Too Much,” where he declares, “There’s a billion folks to kill your dreams / before you even get a chance to have them.” “That’s When I Reach For My Culture” is harder to pin down, seemingly some kind of response to Mission of Burma’s “That’s When I Reach For My Revolver,” although I’ve got no real clue what it means.

Things have shifted musically, too, between #$@% You and Your Cool and now; the guitars take a backseat this time to the synths and electronic beats, furthering the resemblance between The Mathletes in general and the wholly underrated TeenBeat band Eggs. When they are there, the guitars are delicate and strummy, with those keys taking center stage.

“Elephants and Hummingbirds” is beautiful and driving, with some truly great keyboards and otherworldly, Jolie Holland-esque vocals courtesy of expat Houstonian Jenny Westbury (seriously, I want that keyboard line to be my personal theme music, to follow me around wherever I go). “Good Advice,” on the other hand, reminds me strongly of The Mountain Goats, albeit with some awesome surprise horns that burst in close to the end, adding an additional layer on top of the already fuzzy, gentle-hearted pop.

Speaking of layers, “Majesty in a Vacuum” is probably the messiest, weirdest track here, with synths layered on like one thick, scratchy sweater after another on top of Joe’s delicately high-pitched voice. It’s a wide step from there to “Context Ruins Everything,” with its bumping, warm, arms outstretched to the skies and Polyphonic Spree-meets-Peter and the Wolf (the band, not the opera or fairy tale) vibe, all gorgeous and hazy and making me grin like a moron.

Another guest vocalist, Mlee Marie of Hearts of Animals, steps in for “I’m Your Shoe,” the glacial prettiness and shambling rhythms of which make me think of the Velvet Underground’s “I Am Your Mirror” with much, much better vocals. Album ender “Wish Right Thru U,” for its part, is gentle and somber, with hints of Belle and Sebastian drifting through.

Overall, though, what I keep coming back to most is Sebadoh. There’s something distinctly Sebadoh-like about the whole thing, like Excalibur is some never-happened album that would’ve been wedged in-between Bakesale and Harmacy, all Lou Barlow sullen fragility and desperation. It’s partly Joe’s restrained, half-spoken delivery that does it, I think, but it’s also the songs themselves; they’re good enough Barlow’d be glad to have written ’em, I swear.

So let’s hear it, Joe. Repeat after me: I am a freaking great songwriter. Then just keep on doing what you do, because it’s beautiful and wonderful and necessary.

[The Mathletes are playing their album release show 8/13/11 at Fitzgerald’s, along with Giant Princess, Babyshowers, B L A C K I E, The Wiggins, Keith Reynolds, The Sparkle Ponies, Hearts of Animals, Christopher Cascio, & Fishboy.]
(Homeskool Rekordz -- http://homeskoolrekordz.com/; The Mathletes -- http://www.themathletes.com/; The Mathletes (Facebook) -- http://www.facebook.com/themathletes)
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Review by . Review posted Saturday, August 13th, 2011. Filed under Features, Reviews.

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2 Responses to “The Mathletes, Excalibur

  1. SPACE CITY ROCK » Yr. Weekend, Pt. 2: The Mathletes Album Release (Rev’d!) + Rock the Bells + Bummerfest + Fringe Fest + More on August 13th, 2011 at 8:52 am

    […] Seriously, I love these guys; Joe Mathlete can do no wrong, in my book, and new album Excalibur (out on hometown label Homeskool Rekordz) is pretty great. It’s a lot less out-and-out funny than some of his previous stuff, more personal/confessional, but it’s excellent even still. Check out the full review over here. […]

  2. SPACE CITY ROCK » Yr. Weekend, Pt. 2: IDentity + DiverseWorks + Folk Family Revival + The Julys + Prairie Cadets + More on August 27th, 2011 at 12:16 am

    […] Unfolding is flat-out great — at 1PM and The Mathletes at 4PM…and hey, their new album Excalibur is flat-out great, […]

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