Popular music is based on repetition. It could be a drumbeat, a repeated instrumental phrase or a vocal refrain. As long as something happens multiple times, we’re happy. How many thrilling pieces of music have the “Bo Diddley beat” at their core? Without their driving, motorik beat, Neu records would be robbed of their relentless drive. For Render Another Ugly Method, Athens, Georgia’s Mothers have developed a claustrophobic, staccato style which dispenses with the time honoured, 4/4-time signature and consistent rhythmic patterns, for an approach which owes as much to progressive rock as it does to anything post 2000. Whether that approach gels into anything consistently good is another matter.
Following 2016’s critically lauded When You Walk A Long Distance You Are Tired, Mothers, helmed by Kristine Leschper have created eleven bleak, airless songs with appropriately moribund lyrics. “I died six times in your office” opens up verse two of “Western Medicine”, which should give you an idea of the mood of this record. The darkness and (here comes the “A” word…) angst which pervade this record, often veers close to pastiche. If you’ve read Sylvia Plath and you own the complete Joy Division discography, this may be your record of the year.
The prog-rock comparison may be lazy, but it’s valid. Most of the songs on Render Another Ugly Method are comprised of brittle fragments which crash into each other in unexpected places. Time signatures are thrown around with reckless abandon and a vocal melody is somehow placed on top of all this. Sometimes, it works. “Circle Once” goes from a math-rock opening section into something which could almost be described as “bluesy”. Not exactly Joe Bonamassa bluesy, but something which actually (almost) has a swing to it. It’s a brief interlude.
We shouldn’t really be surprised. The first single from Render Another Ugly Method, “Blame Kit” was inspired by a passage in a book of case studies of schizophrenic and autistic children. The dour lyric isn’t reflected in the rather upbeat music however – it’s not exactly a tune you’ll whistle in the shower, but there’s at least a little tip of the hat to western pop. That is until it turns into a bleak waltz about halfway through, of course. On many of these pieces, there’s nothing really firm enough to place the sets of weighty lyrics on securely. “Baptist Trauma” consists of a harsh, staccato drum beat and a clipped guitar line over which Leschper shoehorns an angular vocal melody, until the entire song just stops. If you try to recall it, moments after you’ve heard it, you may come up just scratching your head.
In spite of the minimal nature of the music, there is real strength at times. The stately plod of “Mutual Agreement” with its Cocteau Twins guitar sound and loose – almost falling apart – song structure is one of the more successful songs on the record. On this track (and a handful of others too) Leschper sounds a lot like Mimi Goese of Hugo Largo, a band who occupied a similar sonic space, but had a more esoteric and melodic approach. Hugo Largo polarised opinions and a typical audience would be divided between those who shifted anxiously from foot to foot waiting for the appropriate moment to leave and those who were totally bewitched. You will either fall in love with Mothers or find their fragmented songs merely annoying. There is no in between.
One track on Render Another Ugly Method stands head and shoulders above the rest. “Mother and Wife”, built on a gently pulsing guitar line, is genuinely mesmerising. The song has a real brooding quality which Leschper weaves an understated vocal around. It’s a signpost to another direction which the band would be wise to take. Of course, you have to get past lyrics like “the bed that I was born in, the mattress I could die with”, but it’s worth it. It’s followed by “Wealth Center/Risk Capital” which is a funereal dirge interspersed with odd, King Crimson styled interludes with a bit of spoken word stuff thrown in for good measure. Yikes.
There’s no doubt that Render Another Ugly Method will be nestling close to the top of the “Best of 2018” lists that are coming our way in a few months’ time. Does that make it a great record? The jury is, quite literally, out. At the moment, Mothers couldn’t be more on point and throw producer John Congleton into the mix and you’ve got real hipster heaven. What you haven’t got, is something which you’ll want to listen to in a few years’ time.