When founding member Brent Knopf exited Menomena in early 2011, DEELER, the computer program he developed, may well have followed suit. That’s short for ‘Digital Looping Recorder,’ and it’s how the band writes: by passing around a mic and recording directly into a ten-track loop sampler. It’s brought forth some of the most pleasantly intricate pop arrangements this side of Elephant 6, but on 2010′s Mines, it resulted in some of the group’s most tangled, maddeningly inorganic songwriting yet.
With Knopf’s departure, Moms is a welcome, and poignant, recharge. Recasting Menomena as a duo (Justin Harris and Danny Seim wrote five songs each, recording them together in their “most collaborative and peaceful” process yet), Moms strips away much of the self-consciously clever songcraft. It also reveals the band’s most nakedly human batch of songs yet. Together, these are refreshingly fluid, unencumbered compositions — well paired with the most personal lyrics Menomena have written.
The title, Moms, seems like an inside joke or a quirky riff on the similar-sounding Mines. In fact, it’s an uncharacteristically direct expression of the songs’ shared themes: family, maternal relationships, and aging. Harris was raised by a single mom (his Vietnam vet father walked out during his childhood). Seim lost his mother at 17. For the first time, the members haven’t shied away from discussing their lyrics. “We thought it would be an interesting parallel,” Seim told Pitchfork of his and Harris’ dual situations: “the mom being really involved in your life and the mom being not involved in your life at all.”
Harris’ tracks are especially direct. First single “Heavy Is As Heavy Does” declares itself the band’s most dramatic track yet. “Heavy are the branches hanging from my fucked up tree,” Harris intones over somber piano rumbles. The indictment comes more sadly resigned than scathing — “as prideful as a man he was, proud my father never was of me” — but it ushers in a blistering guitar onslaught as abrasive as anything this side of “The Pelican”. Rightly titled, it’s Menomena’s heaviest moment. Opener “Plumage” begins more innocuously, with looped handclaps and a basic two-chord synth pattern, but when the drums kick in around 1:30, Harris’s voice grows sober: “So long to my ideals/ I guess I ought to face my fears.” A more confrontational buildup, Harris’ “Pique” hurtles into a guitar solo on this parental wallop: “Now you made me/ With no clue as how to raise me . . . Now I’m a failure/ Cursed with male genitalia/ A parasitic fuck.”
Confessional moments aside, Moms isn’t exactly Tonight’s the Night — this is still bright, lively indie-pop, full of color and flourish, with all the piano tinkles and studio trickery you’ve come to expect from the band. The songs are tighter and leaner than on Mines (“One Horse” throws off the mean), rarely wandering, with lyrical themes prevalent rather than all-consuming. “Giftshoppe” makes room for honking brass and swishy percussive loops, while Harris’ “Don’t Mess with Latexas” is outright playful. (It’s also the album’s rare throwaway.)
Seim’s contributions are among the strongest. “Capsule” pushes into rough, Sleigh Bells-y guitar rock territory. Four minutes of groaning guitar and thick, distorted drum loops, it’s one of the album’s best tracks, with surprisingly moving verses that seem to reflect on Seim’s loss: “While I’m evolving from a child to an aging child/ You’re maturing from a memory to a legacy.” The singer’s voice grows distant towards the end, chopped and interrupted: “We never talked,” he bemoans, “cellular telephone.” Equally compelling, “Baton” sets Seim’s mournful self-reflection to thick, full-bodied indie-rock, with well-timed organ blasts and driving rhythm tracks. “I wish I wasn’t forced to rob a grave to pull you near,” Seim sings, saving his most bracing reflection for the end: “I wish I could remember if my last words were sincere/ I wish I could construct a better song for you, my dear.”
At eight minutes, closer “One Horse” is the kicker. A gorgeous, sighing ramble through majestic strings, old-timey vocal samples, and live piano, it’s certainly the most ambitious piece here. It may also be the band’s finest accomplishment period (that includes “Wet and Rusting”). Seim’s lyrics allude again to his loss (“Sister sobbing in the kitchen / For you to stick around”), but they’re looser here, lodged in dreamlike fragments, not open catharsis. “From dust to dust,” goes the closing refrain. “Roots will pass through us.” It’s not the sort of thing you can imagine three music geeks building on a Digital Looping Recorder.
Essential Tracks: “Capsule”, “Baton”, and “One Horse”