Motherhood’s Forward Music Group debut is “heavy, thoughtful, fun, clever and never predictable.”
I know this isn’t going to win me any favours but I don’t honestly care about or even really like 95% of the music I hear. I’m more the kind of music fan that only really listens to like five or six acts but is super, super passionate about them. Motherhood is one of those acts that’s worth really getting into, though. Their last album, Baby Teeth, I’ve probably listened to more times than any other album to come out of the Maritimes. Made up of vocalist and guitarist Brydon Crain, vocalist, keyboardist, and bassist Penelope Stevens, and drummer Adam Sipkema, their music is many things — heavy, thoughtful, fun (very), clever (extremely), and never predictable. They don’t sound like anybody else and they’ve only started to sound more and more like themselves on each release, even while pulling from recognizable influences. Having spent most of this week listening to their newest release, Dear Bongo, (which comes out March 1st through Forward Music Group), I think it’s safe to say they have outdone themselves.
Brydon has a penchant for evoking rich, believable characters through his lyrics and vocal performance. Granted, many of those characters could be described as variations on “an angry alcoholic white guy”, but there are always enough specific details and subtle characterizations to make them feel both relatable and believable. The genius of Dear Bongo, is that it takes this talent and uses it to give a character his own extended emotional arc over the course of the entire album.
“Reeling from the end of his latest relationship, a distressed painter seeks solace in alcohol and his craft. Bored of typical canvas, he paints rooms, other artists’ paintings, buildings, and highway lines until he ultimately decides to fix nature’s colours – most of which now seem flawed to his obsessed eye.”
This is the story, according to the press release sent along with the review copy of the album. The tracks follow the painter’s emotional state through blind optimism/denial, then the gradual onset of sadness and anger, and finally coming to terms with his loss and committing to face his pain and work through it. It’s a high concept that never feels overdone or full of itself. More importantly, it’s a fucking blast from start to finish, the band’s tight performances, catchy, interesting riffs, and thoughtful arrangements all serving to support and enhance the emotional state conveyed by the lyrics while being enjoyable to listen to on their own. One of my favourite tricks they use is the way lyrical and melodic fragments reoccur across several different tracks and help to tie the whole album together as one cohesive unit – like the way the guitar in instrumental piece #224 briefly foreshadows a vibraphone part from Hallway, or the way the line “Surely there’ll be mercy” appears in several songs until it starts to sound like the main character is mostly repeating it to try to convince himself things will be okay.
I’ve heard them play most of these songs live a few times. It was really cool to see some of the changes between the live versions I’d heard and the album versions, like the hand clap percussion and doo-wop vocal overdubs in Way Down, or the way Brydon’s voice jumps up a third on the word “street” in the line “I couldn’t quite get the green right/so I started painting by streetlight” in Hallway.
Hallway, by the way, has usurped Sayin’? as my favourite Motherhood song. It’s got rich, evocative imagery, clever rhymes, and a nuanced vocal performance from Brydon as he sings about the painter’s misplaced obsession with fixing the issues he sees in nature’s colours to avoid dealing with fixing his own issues. I kind of wanted to cry the first time I heard them play this live. I really love how it manages to be touching and emotional without being melodramatic or overly sentimental. I also like how Penelope’s harmonies in the chorus sound like the main character is imagining his ex taunting him in a singsong voice, “I bet you wish that you were in the hallway right now/breakin’ stuff, don’t ya?”. I’m probably going to listen to this song about 100 more times.
Costanza is another standout. Probably the heaviest song they’ve ever recorded, the distorted guitars and insistent rhythm of Brydon’s vocals create a truly oppressive atmosphere. The way he sings the line “You’ve got me all fucked up, I’m all fucked up”, I couldn’t help imagining the song as a long, rambling, angry message left on an answering machine, at half-past-midnight on a Tuesday. I like how it devotes almost half its run time to its instrumental outro, which conveys the feeling of getting trashed late at night and trashing your living room in a rage better than words ever could.
I love how the album has no wasted space. Penelope, Brydon, and Adam are all extremely skilled and practiced musicians and you get the sense that if they wanted to show off, they could. But there are no extended guitar solo wank-offs or overly flashy drum fills on the album. Every decision feels like it was made deliberately to support the songwriting. Said songwriting is as good as ever, but the decision to focus on one character’s journey throughout makes it a more emotionally affecting listen than their last release. Even the two instrumental tracks feel like they were designed to illustrate the painter’s emotional state at his lowest, times when words might fail him.
If you met these three in person, your first impression would probably be that they were very relaxed, nice, down-to-earth people. There isn’t anything in their demeanour that suggests they’re three of the most talented and hard-working artists in the Maritimes. But…on some level, they must know, right? Is it possible to put out an album like this, the best in a series of top-quality releases from the band, and genuinely not realize how fucking incredible you are? This is the kind of release that, as an artist myself, is so well-put-together, so focused, so creative, that it inspires me to want to work harder at my own craft. I finished it and couldn’t wait to listen to it again. I honestly think we’re really lucky we have these three in Fredericton. My only worry is that the next time I see them around it’s going to be awkward now that I’ve spent the last 1000 words fawning over them so much.