Menomena - Moms | Album Review | By Volume

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Menomena’s humanity and innovation take centre-stage on the fabulous Moms.

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Author: on September 18, 2012
September 18, 2012

“Boulder Canyon, you made a son out of me. I had a mother who swam in your streams. I know the ending, yet I’m faking suspense,” admits Justin Harris at the end of the epic and sprawling ten-minute closer “One Horse,” full of sweeping strings and towering vocal harmonies. And it seems this should be the point in the review where I talk about Moms, the fifth proper LP from Portland indie-rockers Menomena, as a renaissance birthed from the turmoil surrounding 2010’s Mines, which led to the subsequent departure of founding member Brent Knopf. It seems inevitable that reviewers will latch onto that storyline and point to how a) Moms works, because it sounds refreshed from the turmoil and tension surrounding the making of Mines, or b), Moms doesn’t work, because Menomena have lost whatever made them so special, because of the turmoil and tension surrounding the making of Mines. It just plain and simple ain’t fair, really, because the magic of Menomena’s music has always been how it incessantly examines the moment of creative explosion; theirs is a style that consistently finds rebirth in the dynamics of song-writing.

While I Am the Fun Blame Monster and Friend and Foe often relied on loud-soft dynamics to emphasize these little moments of creative explosion – something like musical onomatopoeia – I actually praised Mines, despite its turmoil or whatever, because of the way it managed to add some variety to how sonic touches and song-writing choices were brought forth. So, of course, I am ultimately eschewing the question that will be on any fan’s tongue: without Knopf, is this still the same Menomena? Ostensibly, yes, it is; with such a unique foundation centering on the use of homemade looping computer programs, Moms is as complex and melodically rich as any other Menomena record. “Heavy Is as Heavy Does” utilizes the same squall of guitar squeals and bouncing saxophone landmarks as any other of the band’s great songs like “Boyscout’n” or “TAOS.” If anything, the big difference in Moms – because, importantly, Menomena are in no way a stagnant group – is the amount of space afforded to the individual parts of the songs. There is greater breathing room here compared to the cramped Mines.

This is certainly noticeable on gems like “Pique,” which starts with a sombre drone that eventually lifts into some sort of funk-rock finale sporting a wonderful saxophone line (like, goddamn), which makes it a contender for song of the year. “Pique” itself is about the ills of growing up and growing apart from those you once loved: “I grew up and you grew lonely.” It’s a song about failure and the self-deprecation, where the narrator curses himself as “a failure, cursed with male genitalia.” In many ways the song encapsulates what Moms is all about. Yes, it is about moms and familial relations, but more so it is about the strain and pull, the flux of these relationships and how, even when approaching breaking point, there is still a necessity to them — something we cannot escape, and perhaps, more importantly, we don’t necessarily want to escape. This ambiguous flux works perfectly with Menomena’s dynamic song-structures and stylistic idiom. In this way, Moms is, at least lyrically, the most ambitious and satisfying album the band has recorded yet.

Still, it is a difficult album. It lacks some of the intense immediacy that has always marked the band’s previous output. Menomena have always been able to draw the listener in with an enticing hook while remaining oddly distant, mystifying us with a special something just below the surface. There is less immediacy here than before, but that special something still bubbles underneath it all. It takes a while before the guitar shimmer and climax of “One Horse” unveils its glory; it requires more than one listen to uncover the energy behind the refrain of “Plumage,” with all its cacophony; the latter half of the album seems initially plodding, almost too brooding, but there’s warmth there, give it time. That’s the great beauty of Moms: what seems to be initially so concrete and brazen is actually quite playful. If nothing else, Moms cements Menomena into the top tier of innovative acts. It turns out that with the departure of Knopf, nothing has really changed, but rather, much like Menomena’s world, all the past tension and turmoil is just an experience that folds itself into the band’s sonic environment. There is no dwelling here; the band’s world is one that is informed by experiences, but in a way that shows growth without being melancholic – caught in a state irreparably damaged or transfixed by particular events. The most lauding credit I can give Moms is to say that, pure and simple, it’s human, and we hear the humanity in every crack.

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