At the beginning of 2012, when multi-instrumentalist/co-singer Brent Knopf left quirk-rock trio Menomena, the future of the Portland band felt uncertain. Knopf’s tenor perfectly complemented Justin Harris’s and Danny Seim’s vocals, and his guitar work helped structure Menomena songs into hook-ridden frameworks.
But within just the first few minutes of Moms, the first Menomena release as a two-piece, it’s quite clear that Menomena will be just fine. For the most part, the classic Menomena tropes remain: Seim’s sporadic and intricate drumming, Harris’s swelling saxophone and bass lines, and a swarm of slow-burning strings, sprinkling keys, and hazy harmonies. Even the unconventional guitar work is in place, making it almost feel like Knopf never left. There’s seldom a hiccup or misstep, with standout tracks like “Pique,” “Baton,” and “Skintercourse,” among others, serving as stepping stones through a lagoon of sweltering rock-outs and bipolar dirges.
Rather than patching up the holes left by Knopf with collaborations or guest appearances, Harris and Seim (music collaborators since high school) filled them by their own intuition. Moms feels like a new start, as the duo tries out new ideas, both musically and lyrically, that Menomena never really delved into before. They toy with instruments like flute and cello, further layering every track, and both Harris’s and Seim’s lyrics (the two singers alternate lead-vocal duties on each song) feel more immediate and intimate than ever, with songs exploring themes of strained relationships, tragedy, and loss.
Moms should’ve been the sound of a band unraveling — a machine struggling to operate after losing a key apparatus. Instead, it is arguably Menomena’s best effort to date, as Harris and Seim have learned how to adapt to the situation and improve upon it. To say that Moms is another Menomena album is misleading. It’s much more than that.