by Max Freedman (@anticlimaxwell)
Unlike pretty much every decade since the 1970s, the 2010s haven’t yet seen Athens, GA birth a stellar musical act with a rabid nationwide fanbase. Soon enough, though, Mothers, Kristine Lepscher’s solo art project turned full band onslaught, might just occupy that role. In the months following Mothers’ signing with Grand Jury, the band’s profile has shifted from low-key to ubiquitous. A fitting transition, as this sort of explosion from intimate to immediate litters Mothers’ impressive debut album, When You Walk a Long Distance You Are Tired.
Mothers’ consistent switch-flipping from muted to jolting isn’t applied in the standard face-smacking way that Kurt Cobain immortalized in the early 90s; instead, the band’s songs often start restrained, growing to establish rollicking grooves with peripheral guitars that growl and cut as they gradually come to dominate the song. Equally as often, all but Lepscher’s guitar slowly decline into near-complete silence, guiding in a more placid, open section. Mothers frequently toy with structure and dynamics, with melodies and instruments constantly fading in and out of focus.
The one element that’s consistently the center of attention, when present, is Lepscher’s voice, which is often shaky and unstable within the same few seconds that it’s firm and commanding. Lepscher’s ghostly, powerful voice adds an extra layer of sternness to her band’s already gripping – and complex – arrangements, with strings (arranged by McKendrick Berden of Grand Vapids) omnipresent on the more sparse tracks.
The songs on Distance can fairly be separated into two camps: with and without strings. Those with strings, such as centerpiece “Nesting Behavior” and stirring album opener “Too Small For Eyes,” tend to lack percussion, or at least scale it back quite a bit, giving Lepscher’s voice and words ample space to air themselves. “I think I’m at my best when nothing’s needing me,” she intones over merely mandolin and strings with roughly a minute left in the latter track, one of the strongest examples of lyrical self-doubt on the record.
In the other camp are some of the album’s most immediate songs, such as “Lockjaw,” “Copper Mines,” and especially single “It Hurts Until It Doesn’t.” The last of these three, arguably the strongest song on the album, circles back to the same self-doubt made apparent on “Too Small For Eyes”: “I was crushed by the weight of my own ego/but never honest enough to say it,” Lepscher beckons as the song’s first verse ends. This lyric and song, like many others on Distance, addresses the imbalance between ego and self-doubt, as Lepscher told Noisey, while also sounding applicable to a harsh breakup. “You have eyes/in every room/but you won’t see me/you won’t see me/you won’t see me walk away,” Lepscher sings later in this song, and this line could certainly depict the end of a relationship. “You love me mostly when I’m leaving/I was half gone when you met me” on “Lockjaw” is a phrase equally fit for exploring both self-doubt and the ashes of romance, a dichotomy consistent throughout Distance.
“Lockjaw” also most prominently displays what might be Distance’s greatest strength: its ability to clearly build up to moments of emotional relief, yet still surprise listeners when the tension breaks. It’s clear that this song’s verses are leading to a quieter, more minimal passage, yet the guitar bursts that sandwich this harrowing midsection still charm and exalt every time they go by, just as they do after each chorus. “Copper Mines” likewise fiddles with a steady but thoroughly rewarding crawl towards something larger: its arpeggiated intro and verse smoothly segue into rumbling fits of rocking rage before taming themselves back into place. Album closer “Hold Your Own Hand” plays this alternating game in spades, making for seven of the album’s most action-packed minutes.
A wise choice to end the album with: “Hold” hints at the incredibly exciting future Mothers likely have in store. It’s the closest Distance comes to the disorienting, invigorating catharsis of album B-side “No Crying in Baseball,” recorded five months after Distance was completed. The pummeling punk attack, eerily commanding vocal delivery, and general sonic battery of “Baseball” best reflect the monstrous live shows that originally put Mothers on the map. As the band brings its act around the world, it’ll surely grow ever closer to being this decade’s B-52s, R.E.M., Neutral Milk Hotel, or of Montreal.