There's already a handy narrative available to guide you through the schizophrenic Moms, the fifth album by Portland, Ore.’s Menomena.
Shortly after the 2010 release of Mines, the group parted ways with co-founder Brent Knopf in January of 2011. Remaining members Danny Seim and Justin Harris didn’t waste time proving they could carry on without him, rising from the ashes, as the narrative goes, to show they could soldier on, stronger, better and faster, with the concept of motherhood – the source of strength and chicken soup when times are tough – emerging as the album’s unifying theme. And thus, emotional batteries recharged, Seim and Harris return fitter and happier than ever.
Fitter, yes, but maybe not happier. Harris and Seim each contributed five songs to Moms, which is essentially reverb-free, guitar-driven, cheerful pop-rock, on the surface. But the upbeat nature of Menomena's music is worlds away from the lyrical content. “Now you made me with no clue as how to raise me to be a stand-up man,” goes one verse of “Pique.” “You brought me into the shitshow without a penny or a plan / Now I'm a failure cursed with male genitalia, a parasitic fuck with no clue as to what men do, impossible to love.” Or this: “Heavy are the branches hanging from my fucked-up family tree,” sings Harris at the beginning of the piano-driven “Heavy is as Heavy Does,” “and heavy was my father, a stoic man of pride and privacy.” In the context of some of the lyrics, the shards of percussion instruments, woodwinds, fuzzed-out guitars and synth pads that dart in and out, rarely hanging around long enough to form a lasting impression, are bits of painful memories, beaten back down as soon as they arise. Harris' and Seim's deadpan, earnest vocal deliveries, which have drawn comparisons to Gorillaz and Blur frontman Damon Albarn, rarely betray the emotional turmoil behind the words, which resides at the surface of nearly every song.
That easy narrative – overcoming adversity and gaining strength – overwrought and dramatic as it is, isn’t entirely untrue. By phone from Beaumont, Texas, Harris confirmed he and Seim felt they had something to prove with Moms. “Not consciously, but maybe subconsciously,” he said. “We both had something to prove as just ourselves and not with Brent.” At first, they wondered if they should add additional members (they’ve had guest musicians on their albums before). “We thought, ‘Should we just keep to the two of us, or should we try to involve other people?’ We decided to keep it to just the two of us.”
Moms was less about making a statement, Harris said, than it was about showing they could still write good music as a two-piece. “Quite honestly,” Harris said, “for the last few years, Brent checked out and his role lessened considerably. We kinda had gotten used to working as a duo there for awhile.”
You won’t find a lot of concept albums about moms. At the same time, because critics latch easily onto concepts, the motherhood theme risks being blown out of proportion. (The album’s title, it turns out, came not from Harris or Seim, but rather from artist Dan Attoe, who created the cover art.)
“We did call it ‘Moms,’” Harris said, “so it definitely points to a concept. We did run the risk of it being about our two moms specifically. A lot of Danny’s songs reference his mom passing as a teenager. But a lot of other ones are about other matronly relationships. And I was definitely thinking about my mom being a single parent. Being 35 now, I’m five years older than she was when she had me. I was thinking about the vast differences in our lives. Both Danny and I lost grandmas recently. There’s a lot of stuff going on.”
Becoming a duo allowed the lines of communication to open a little more fully during the writing phase. There was even some of the cliched songwriting tension between them, a la Lennon/McCartney.
“If a certain bar has raised on one end,” Harris said, “then the other steps up, not for the purpose of competition but to make everything equal in quality and levity. It’s an unspoken thing.” Harris and Seim discussed what they were writing about, which was unheard of before Knopf’s departure. “One of us would say, ‘These are what my songs are about, so you know.’ Then I’d go down a certain path… This was the first time ever. In the past we have not done that. We’ve either been bashful or just not wanting to be forthcoming about the lyrical content. We are definitely less egocentric and maybe a lot more open about what songs are about now.”
Paring down the trio dynamic to a one-on-one conversation, Harris said, has made it easier for Menomena to function.
“I think having gone through both now, it is easier,” Harris said. “There’s less to consider... Me speaking personally, lyrically I would have to represent two other people, so you couldn’t be super personal. I’d have to represent the band as a whole. So we made a lot more vague lyrical statements. Now this time, I’d say, ‘This is what I’m writing about, just so you know.’ It opened the doors... Having the dynamic be what it was, and now grow into what it has become, was interesting and refreshing.”
Menomena w/ PVT, Oct. 14, 8:30 p.m., $15-$18, Pearl Street Nightclub, 10 Pearl St., Northampton, (413) 584-7771, iheg.com.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun