Menomena: Moms

The A.V. Club reviews a lot of records every week, but some things still slip through the cracks. Stuff We Missed looks back at notable releases from this year that we didn't review at their time of release.

When Menomena founding member Brent Knopf left in early 2011, remaining members Danny Seim and Justin Harris faced a weighty decision: carry on as a duo, replace Knopf—an integral songwriter—or end the band. They chose the first option, but given the amount of turmoil surrounding their unusually gloomy 2010 album, Mines, it was unclear how Menomena would survive, let alone flourish, without a key member. 

Little of Knopf’s departure makes its way onto Moms. Instead, Harris and Seim smartly divert their attention inward, drawing on their respective histories of losing a parent and the destructive aftermath thereof. Songs by Seim, whose mother died when he was 17, contain a sense of reluctant yearning for a romance to fill the vacancy: “Capsule” opens with conquest before quickly giving in to concession, while “Baton” expresses a fear of transferring his baggage to others.

Raised by his mother after his father left the family, Harris is less kind to his targets. First taking aim at his mother for burdening him with her grief, “Pique” blames both parents for his failures, but he saves his most vehement loathing for himself. (“Now I’m a failure / cursed with male genitalia / a parasitic fuck / with no clue as to what men do / impossible to love.”) From there, the song erupts into a blistering guitar solo, rare for the band, and a fitting rejoinder to a question of testosterone if ever there was one. “Heavy Is As Heavy Does” denies Harris’ father a second chance, even if the family’s outlook could be worse for it. It’s heavy stuff, but Harris and Seim temper their emotional outpouring with an emphasis on growth over regression, survival over spite—and somehow manage to retain frankness and lyrical wit in the face of such dour content.

While Menomena is now two-thirds of its former self, it certainly doesn’t sound like it. Its past albums were composed of ideas left to stretch out and wander, only to be set on a back burner until the inevitable rousing close. But Moms finds Menomena at its most direct and aggressive, concerned with making its point loud, clear, and immediate—fitting, given the record’s disarming concept. This is most evident in the supremely catchy first half, where the run from clap-happy, piano-pounding opener “Plumage” through the major-key jangle of “Baton” makes for the band’s most accessible side yet. Following the dark, dirge-like lament of “Heavy Is As Heavy Does,” the second half ambles along at a more subdued pace, but even low-key tracks like “Tantalus” and the 10-minute coda “One Horse” remain tight and urgent, never letting ideas stray too far from the core. Like the band itself, Moms’ components are fewer, but with a greater presence.

By purging themselves of old ghosts in such a forceful manner, Seim and Harris have tapped into a wellspring of emotional catharsis with Moms. That depth can also serve as a statement of purpose for the band going forward: Menomena has been through the wringer, and emerged stronger for it.

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