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Mother Mother – Photo: Matt Bourne
On the surface, there’s little about Mother Mother that should provoke a strong reaction. The seemingly innocuous band has proved surprisingly divisive, however, inspiring both disdain and adoration. In the decade since their debut, they have been criticized for falling back on pop-rock cliches as often as they have received praise for self-aware songwriting and an idiosyncratic sound often difficult to pin down, having drifted from their quirky folk beginnings into something occupying the space between indie pop and alt rock.
The band, of course, is highly aware of its schismatic reputation and play to it almost gleefully. Where other artists attempt to play down or transcend the fundamentally imitative nature of pop music, Mother Mother embraces it. At its best, their sixth studio album No Culture () offers expert songwriting, powerful vocal and instrumental elements, and a namesake track that functions as a playfully self-conscious nod to fans and detractors alike.
As the album opens to the stomps and claps of the guitar-heavy anthem “Free,” it’s clear the acoustic sensibility of the band’s early days has given way to a sound far more brash, intense and confident than anything that came before it. “Love Stuck” and “The Drugs” drive the point home with razor sharp hooks and intense, pulsing beats. The opening tracks have a stadium-ready grandiosity — all three tracks seem deliberately engineered to get a festival crowd stomping and clapping along. No Culture rarely returns to this level of intensity, but even at its low points, siblings Ryan and Molly Guldemond, along with Jasmin Parker, deliver vocals that drive the album and infuse it with an infectious, satisfying brightness.
As precise and memorable as the songwriting is at times, Mother Mother’s tendency to fall back on well-worn pop cliches is still apparent. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing — the lead single, “The Drugs,” holds up as a catchy, highly listenable song in spite of its tired comparison between love and addiction. Even the cringe-inducing, pop punk inflected lyrics of “Back in School” are propelled by a stomping beat and a powerful rhythm section.
Elsewhere, however, the line between playful and serious is blurred almost beyond recognition. “Letter,” arguably the worst offender, features lyrics that waver between the eye-rolling and the nonsensical. Imagine, in the year 2017, waiting by the mailbox every day hoping that an unrequited love will eventually write back. It’s an excessively maudlin track that strikes an oddly self-serious tone for a band more than capable of winking at its critics. Mother Mother’s sense of humor leaves open the possibility that “Letter” might be parody, but it is presented so sincerely that one wonders why bother at all?
The middle third of the album is dragged down by a shift into a darker, more nocturnal tone. It’s interesting stylistically, but awkwardly delivered. The ambitious “Baby Boy” is full of compelling elements, but none work particularly well together, with transitions that are abrupt and jarring. Despite its hook, “Mouth of the Devil” also suffers from a flirtation with a darker tone, but doesn’t quite land. None of the middle tracks are terrible per se, but after such a strong opening, they’re a disappointment.
Fortunately, No Culture closes out strong. The acerbic title track toys with the fundamentally derivative nature of pop music. Ryan Guldemond playfully exaggerates his critics’ accusations of unoriginality, comparing himself to various scavengers and predators. More surprising but no less satisfying is “Everything is Happening,” which reprises the same ideas in a more sincere tone, setting pop music’s tendency towards imitation against themes of renewal and rebirth. If “a black star falls into the sea,” Guldemond sings, it’s only “to make room for the next prodigy.” It might be the most striking line of the album, at once subtly referencing David Bowie’s passing and gently making note of the cyclical, self-referential nature of the music industry. It makes for a thoughtful and surprisingly poignant interlude before the album returns to a soaring power ballad one last time on the sentimental closer “Family.”
In all fairness, Mother Mother is experimenting here, and experiments do not always succeed. If an awkward midsection can be forgiven for the sake of a strong beginning and end, No Culture holds up as a worthwhile album despite its flaws. Tracks like “Love Stuck” and the title track stand among the band’s best work, even if their brilliance makes the album’s rough midsection that much more frustrating by comparison. No Culture may not fully live up to its potential, but its high points are signs of a talented band going in exciting directions.
No Culture is available on Spotify and iTunes, and for sale at mothermothersite.com.
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