Menomena are four records deep into their career, but it's their fifth, Moms, that feels like a debut. In some respects, it is. Multi-instrumentalist Brent Knopf left the band last year to focus on his other project, Ramona Falls; and Menomena's first LP as a duo shows Danny Seim and Justin Harris dealing with truly personal subject matters for the first time. One listen through Moms gives the feeling that this is the first time you've ever really known Menomena.
But even so, it's hard to ignore how Moms is so highly informed by everything that's come before it. The group's previous high-water mark, 2007's Friend and Foe, flashed an energy of three opposing songwriters combatting each other in a triangle of one-ups-manships and solos. Its successor, 2010's Mines, was a more conventional record that holds up better than expected, but still slogs through several directionless interludes that seem to mistake which hooks are actually the songs' most interesting. In either case, their best moments were defined by the periphery of their actual songwriting. Moms, on the other hand, finally finds the balance between enjoyable and conventional by isolating more precise hooks and silencing all the non-essential chatter that served as the focal point for so much of the band's history.
Seim and Harris seem to have cut any and all distractions going into writing Moms, and their directness plays out in their lyrics. Where they once dwelled almost exclusively in abstractions and far-out metaphors, the band's lyrics dive straight into issues of considerable weight. The record is split in half between Seim's memory of his mother, who passed away when he was a teenager; and the difficulty Harris had dealing with his father abandoning his family. But even the most emotionally dense tracks—"Pique" and "Heavy Is As Heavy Does" stand out tallest—deal with these issues of maturation after loss through memories of learned participants. They're both removed enough from the topics to avoid cliche, and instead lend insight into how these events have shaped their current states.
The biggest shift on Moms is the band's embrace of subtlety. Take "Capsule," a standard-issue Menomena track that coasts by seamlessly and without fanfare, all composed of seemingly simple parts. But toward the very end, the knot comes undone and each flute, organ, and guitar uncoils itself. Where each of these instruments might have commanded a solo, or at least its own hook in the band's earlier entires, here they take a step back into obscurity to make a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
All of this leads to the album's most impressive accomplishment. Because Menomena have always occupied several adjectives, but on Moms they've evolved from an experimental pop band to a pop band that experiments. Their catalog features a few moments of euphoria, but "Plumage" marks the first time the band seems to be genuinely enjoying themselves—and it's contagious.
Moms was recorded much quicker than Menomena's previous record, 2010's Mines, but it's the most comfortable and fleshed-out record they've ever done. This doesn't come without its cost—you're not going to get the same climactic bursts of bari sax or squealing guitar non sequiturs to keep you on the edge of your seat. But taken as a whole, Moms outreaches and outpaces any of Menomena's previous works. So as far as quasi-debuts and faux-first impressions go, this one is itching for a follow-up.