Go do the Pepsi Challenge with the Mother Mother discography and you’re going to taste two distinctly different bands. Their debut record, Touch Up, is a justifiably lauded alt-folk masterpiece, and by the time “Legs Away” starts playing, Mother Mother has cemented themselves as something other, and exciting. It’s perhaps not puzzling, like a hippie trading rope sandals for wing tips, that they would trade that uncanny quality for something more widely palatable. Not puzzling, but a shame nonetheless.
This might sound like lame nostalgia on the occasion of the latest Mother Mother release, The Sticks, but that nostalgia runs a hard path through all of their subsequent releases. I wouldn’t even have new listeners go back to Touch Up to see what the band could do with an acoustic guitar, some stilted lyrics, and a three part harmony. Ignorance is bliss, and “O My Heart,” et al are much more enjoyable not knowing what was, and not wanting to shake the band by its collective shoulders and ask them to disregard Emily Haines and just be themselves, dammit.
But that’s a flawed approach to this album. The identity of a band is rooted in the present, and by that principle, this Mother Mother is more calculated and aerodynamic at the expense of weird. “Let’s Fall In Love” is probably the most accurate thesis statement on the record, a power pop piece with no power. It’s an earwig, to be sure, and one sure to be hummed through the year, but it’s safe. And not just seatbelt safe, but full racing harness safe. Waterwings safe. “Business Man” and “Happy” continue the trend, all but screaming the query: Where did the energy go?
We know multi-album deals are a wet blanket on creativity, but The Sticks could stand to generate some friction and heat. On “Verbatim,” frontman Ryan Guldemond has the verve to call himself “the rooster in the morning” and “the cock of the day.” The Sticks is a kind of bird too, but it’s more like a sleepy seagull at night, belly full of yesterday’s scraps.There’s no offense here, but I doubt that the critical clairvoyants could have predicted an unmemorable outings from Mother Mother. Yet here we are, ankle deep.