Moms may very well be Menomena’s darkest, most emotionally devastating album yet–an arresting song cycle about familial bonds that touches on mothers long since passed away, absentee fathers, dysfunctional kinship, and the way one’s family ties weigh on every other relationship that comes along in life.
“Heavy are the branches hanging from my fucked-up family tree,” murmurs singer and multi-instrumentalist Justin Harris on the show-stopping “Heavy is as Heavy Does,” offering up one of the LP’s central themes over a simple piano melody that gives way to fiery guitar skronk; the combination of dread and grandeur creating something akin to OK Computer‘s best, moodiest moments.
At the same time, this is the happiest the Portland-based Menomena–around since 2000–has been in ages. That’s because they (mostly) resolved their troubled relationship as a band with last year’s departure of co-founding member Brent Knopf, who left not long after the release of Menomena’s fourth album, Mines, to turn his side project Ramona Falls into a full-time endeavor. Harris and fellow singer/multi-instrumentalist Danny Seim have continued on as a duo, expanded to a quintet for touring purposes.
“Just the overall vibe in the band is so much better, it’s a much better experience for us now,” says Harris. “It wasn’t a good situation and I applaud [Knopf]–it’s not easy walking away from something you’ve spent the last 10 years of your life doing, but he wasn’t happy and none of us were, really.”
Knopf alluded to internal dissent and hard feelings when I interviewed him back in 2007, when Menomena was touring its third album, Friend and Foe, for an SF Weekly piece; he blamed it squarely on the band’s creative process. “To be a responsible musician, you have to make sure the song works, and that means we’re always pruning each other’s ideas,” Knopf said at the time. “And that really hurts, to have an idea you really care about and have the other guys remove it. You gotta figure that with three people with equal roles within the band, more often than not you’re gonna get overruled and most of your ideas won’t see the light of day.”
He insisted that that tension, while frustrating, wasn’t enough to split the band up. But things were far more frayed than they let on. Harris says they tried to downplay it because they didn’t want that drama overshadowing the music. Yet that plan went up in smoke around the release of Mines, “when Danny and Brent felt very at liberty to just start talking [to the press] about how problematic our relationship had become, and that just turned a spotlight on it,” says Harris. “I think Brent started to check out a couple years before Mines came out. He started doing Ramona Falls and that was more exciting and interesting for him. At that point it started to go downhill a little bit faster. Toward the end there, there were times when he was standing on stage with his fingers in his ears, like, clearly you’re not hiding it anymore that you’re not interested in being here. I mean, we didn’t hate each other and we don’t hate each other. But it’s just a lot better off this way.”
Harris allows that Knopf had a fair point about the band’s contentious songwriting process, and he says that in some ways that same dynamic continues in his partnership with Seim. “In doing [Moms] I realized pretty quickly that nothing has really changed for Danny and I aside from not having a third person to have to battle,” Harris laughs. “He writes stuff very fast and I write really slowly, so we’re always butting heads on that.”
“But we’ve let some things go,” he says. “I think five years ago we might have had a little more of a stranglehold on our ideas, and at this point we trust each other to say, ‘If you really like that, that’s good enough for me,’ instead of ‘No no no, you can’t do that, that sounds dumb, you gotta do this.’ There’s still a little bit of that, but we’ve lessened our grip a bit.”
Whatever tensions still exist, Moms hardly suffers for it, probably even benefits from it. It easily houses some of Menomena’s best, most visceral material yet, from the throbbing, flute-dappled electronic groove of “Capsule” (in which Seim croons Folk Implosion-y while singing about glory holes) to “Pique”–a sumptuously shadowy burner in which Harris again bitterly curses his family tree (“You made me/ With no clue as how to raise me/ To be a stand-up man/ You brought me into the shitshow/ Without a penny or a plan”)–or the pillowy closer “One Horse,” which drapes ethereal, cello-kissed beauty over its final heartbreak: “I know the ending/ Yet I’m faking suspense/ More fertilizer for the trees/ From dust to dust/ Roots will pass through us.”
“I’m really, really proud of this one,” Harris says of Moms, “and it felt like toward the end of this album we’d kinda just hit our stride, so it was unfortunate that just due to timelines and when we wanted to release the record we kinda had to stop there.”
But Harris says that during breaks on the current tour, Menomena will try to get cranking on songs for the next album, which bodes well for the future of a band that’s working its way through a difficult past.
“Danny and I have known each other since high school, and if nothing else we’re still friends. I guess I could see this ending tomorrow and saying, ‘Well, that was a good run,’ just as easily as I can see it going on another 12 years. But I think we still have more to do.”