Review Summary: A face only a mother could love.
Right, so let’s cut straight to the chase: if you’re thinking of picking up the fourth Mother Mother LP in search of more of the same energetic, catchy-as-hell vibe that characterized their last two releases, then you’re in for a disappointment – The Sticks
is a different beast entirely. And by that, I mean that virtually every single thing you remembered – perhaps even cherished – about the band from records past has disappeared completely. This time out, the Vancouver five-piece are obsessed with the end of the world, disillusioned by the times in which they find themselves in, and too distracted by the gaping maw of self-isolation opening up before their feet to the point that they kind of forget to live a little. Don’t get me wrong – all of this is actually pretty fine by me. What I’m not so cool with, though, is the fact that in shedding all the traits that made them so unique and memorable, the band has ended up creating a face that only a mother could love (ha).
Initially, it seems quite surprising that a band which built its reputation around an overall sense of quirkiness and shameless whimsicality could turn into a bunch of graying middle-agers overnight. But singer and lead guitarist Ryan Guldemond is quick to suggest that their new-found sobriety is borne out of a society-wide disenfranchisement with the modern age, which they’ve simply seen more and more of lately. "Much of the themes wrap around this longing to escape the clutches of the modern world and get back in 'the sticks' – retreat to a simpler, almost more logical place," he explained in a recent interview with Postmedia News. "It's about the peace of the soul – the soul's tranquillity, and how it can be disrupted by all this information and vapid communication flying around via technology,” he added. In a world that seems to continuously teeter on the brink of losing all meaning, this comes as a powerful thesis statement, and Mother Mother is canny enough to know as much.
Yet the manner in which they have designed The Sticks
to deliberately escape – nay, shirk
– its duty of care is jarring, for not once does the record give pause to disguise the overarching sense of dreariness with which it dresses its proposition, to the point that one might even accuse it of reveling
in our despair. Even fans of the band’s more off-the-handle, wildly uneven tracks from their previous records would do well to take note that this really isn’t the same sort of over-the-top, mildly-scary pantomime melodrama that ran down the nervous centre of songs like “Try to Change” or “Far in Time”, but something much more sinister altogether. Take, for instance, the album’s penultimate track, “Waiting for the World to End”, which features Ryan Guldemond singing the lines, “Everybody come with me/Let’s throw ourselves off Hubbard’s Peak/And we’ll tumble down the mountainside/Into the mouth of all our great divides.” While it certainly doesn’t mark the first time that Mother Mother have exhibited lemming-like tendencies within their lyrics, there’s a certain disingenuous, Pied Piper of Hamelin air about this particular round of artist-assisted suicide. It’s almost as if the band is deliberately leading us on, all the while casting furtive glances over their shoulder to see how far, exactly, we will follow them into the great unknown.
Even the album’s more convivial cuts reek of a certain amount of cynicism: lead single “Let’s Fall in Love”, for one, is decidedly very much against doing exactly that. “Mommy did it, daddy did it – even though I bet they wish they really didn’t,” chants the band en masse over a bumpy, unforgiving guitar section. Even as far as modern anti-love anthems go, this one stands out as being particularly vitriolic. Elsewhere, “Infinitesimal” sees Ryan Guldemond and co. counting the cost of having loved and lost: “There’s a million, billion, trillion stars/But I’m down here low, fussing over scars,” they wheedle in perfect, almost-captivating unison. Deeper album tracks like “Cry Forum”, in turn, sees Guldemond casting himself as an otherworldly, omniscient observer bemoaning the fate of a godless world – “I stare at the populous in prayer, I look at ‘em talking to the air/I sing for ‘em – they don’t seem to hear; I cry for ‘em,” he emotes, and one can just about see the anguish in his face – while “Dread In My Heart” swaps out any semblance of prettiness that its light acoustic arrangements may have brought for a dose of all out profanity: “Fisti-fu
ckin-cuffin’ in the dirt!” exhorts Guldemond at the apex of the second verse. Yet, even if one chooses to set these examples of The Sticks
’ unforgiving style of lyricism aside, the rest of the record’s architecture still manages to ensure that Mother Mother’s transfiguration of their brand into an embodiment of hopelessness and overwhelming pessimism is thorough and complete, as the vast majority of the album’s tracks largely reside in the waffling, mid-tempo realm, and the instrumentation, although serviceable, barely rises above the absolutely necessary.
What this ultimately means is that in the end, there’s not much to distract from the fact Mother Mother’s cuts simply aren’t that
good this time around. Very few individual songs on The Sticks
actually prove themselves capable of making the connections their parent band so obviously want them to make, and as there is barely anything else to focus on elsewhere, mild weaknesses – like the rattling incongruency of the title track’s instrumental arrangements, or the forced, oftentimes shoddy lyrical work on “Love It Dissipates” (“If you were so funny, I’d be your joke/If you had the money, well we both might be broke”…sigh), and the slow, boring crawl at which “Little Pistol” creeps by – become glaringly and painfully obvious. To be fair though, every track here does have a successful moment of sorts – a brief moment of transcendence, if you like – but frustratingly, they are too often sandwiched between minutes of uninspired prose or turn out to be mere frosting on a particularly unremarkable cake. In general, the less over-reaching and more focused The Sticks
’ tracks are, the better they turn out to be: I for one found that the numbers that walk a fairly linear path – like “Infinitesimal” or the sure-to-be-criminally-underrated “Happy” - were a welcome reminder of the reasons why I bought into the unbridled, naked euphorics of both O My Heart
. Yet despite my misgivings I also confess to feeling that it is unlikely that The Sticks
will turn out to be more than just a mere bump in the road; it is often said that every artist is allowed at least one bad idea, and for Mother Mother this may simply be an instance of them fulfilling that quota. All told, the hugely-talented Vancouver outfit may not have strung themselves up the ankles here, exactly, but it looks like their official coronation as the undisputable matriarchs of the western Canadian indie scene may have to wait for a little while yet.