If there are two trends that have dominated contemporary indie rock over the past ten years or so, it’s wallowing and 90s nostalgia. These trends are interconnected – as I’ve written about before, the “sad boy” and “sad girl” aesthetic that so many modern artists have seized upon was innovated by artists like Fiona Apple and Elliott Smith, who rose to fame during the Clinton Era and, alongside moody grunge bands and, later, nu metal acts, helped contribute to the perception that the biggest artists of that decade were all gloomy, angsty, and disaffected. This has ended up informing a lot of the music influenced by the 90s as well, and while it’s resulted in some great albums, it hasn’t always resulted in very fun albums. The dominant mood of a lot of current indie rock is that the only course of action in the face of misery and hardship is to partake in a sonic bloodletting of all your fear and pain.
Even the bands who aren’t explicitly sad are still kind of sad-adjacent. I wrote about Wet Leg as a kind of respite from the overwhelming gloominess of modern indie rock, but I don’t know that I’d describe them as a particularly optimistic band, either. Wet Leg aren’t boring, but they are bored – the moronic simplicity of their music (and I mean that in the most positive way possible) reflects a desperate attempt to escape drudgery and ennui. It’s good to drive to, but it doesn’t transport you or make you think something better is possible – it papers over the mundane rather than supplants it.
Enter Momma’s Household Name, an album that hardly reinvents the musical wheel, but offers something increasingly rare in modern rock music – escape. In Momma’s world, rock music isn’t a tool for expressing one’s emotions, it’s an end in and of itself, a promised land for a certain kind of kid who knows there has to be more to life than a suburban home and a 9 to 5. For Momma, rock and roll isn’t a temporary salve for your traumas – it’s a form of deliverance.
Momma didn’t always traffic in such romantic notions. The band’s debut full length, Two of Me, is as sickly luminous as track titles like “Biohazard” suggest, painting a picture of a suburban America where bored kids resort to petty crime (“Stringers”) and casual violence (“Double Dare”) to wring any sense of excitement out of their lives. And when they grow up, they don’t become rock stars, or even doctors or lawyers – they become carnies (uh, “Carny”), drifting from town to town in a fog of self-delusion, convinced that they’ve found a way to live outside the system. It’s alluring in the same way that a show like Twin Peaks is alluring, in that it hints at a malevolence existing right at the edge of, and in some cases lurking beneath, wholesome Americana. In Two of Us, the goal is not to be a square, tacitly, to not be like your parents, and if hard drugs and underground fight clubs are the fastest way to do it, so be it.
Meanwhile, the first thing Momma sings about in Household Name is taking a shot of whiskey, which a quick survey of Thin Lizzy and Motley Crue’s discography will confirm is the most rock and roll liquor of all time. Playfully titled “Rip Off,” the album’s opening title track is an admission that Momma is about to indulge in some serious 90s cosplay – from this point on, it’s all loud/soft/loud dynamics, big riding-your-bike-with-no-handlebars production, and fist-pump inducing power chords. But it’s also a winking seduction to both the listener and the music industry – this is what moves units nowadays (“I’ll be a household name”) and, despite your better judgment, you’re gonna love every minute of it (“Now you’re singing along/”To my song”/”A rip off”). This is a derivative album full of rock and roll cliches, yes, but it’s a very well executed derivative album full of rock and roll cliches, and one that sounds great blared out the window in a car full of your best friends.
In an interview with Stereogum, co-singer/guitarist Allegra Weingarten conceded that the kind of stratospheric success that Momma sings about is something that is “not something we’re probably ever going to experience. But there’s a little glimmer of… but what if?” She’s being a little modest – the first four songs on Household Name don’t ask “what if?” so much as “why not?,” aiming for big, anthemic choruses meant to capture the feeling of the wind whipping through your hair as you speed down a highway towards endless possibilities ahead. “Speeding 72” is literally about hopping in a van and leaving your troubles behind for the promise of perpetual freedom. In “Medicine,” drugs aren’t an escape for bored teenagers – it’s the only metaphor intense enough to properly illustrate the potency of a love affair. “Rockstar” has all of the elements of a “gee touring does suck” song, except for the fact that Momma clearly think that hopping from gig to gig and knowing (or at least thinking) that you’re the hottest thing to ever roll through these podunk towns is the coolest thing in the world. So much of indie rock’s personality is built upon the idea of relishing in one’s role as a perpetual underdog, of being embarrassed by the fact that you might have any ambition at all. But Household Name is refreshing in its arrogance, dogged pursuit of greatness, and shameless aping of rockstar’s past. Weingarten and Etta Friedman may try to cloak their hooks and earnestness in a veil of meta-textual irony, but these songs are just too catchy, too huge, to be taken as a joke.
That’s not to say that the record doesn’t run out of steam. It’s clear that Momma are really only working with three or four ideas – “Lucky” is just a softer version of “Medicine,” while “Motorbike,” which also opens with a line about shooting whiskey, is the more desperate, more romantic version of “Speeding 72.”1“Motorbike”‘s video, which features a red lit scene of two lovers zooming down a wooded road on a motorcycle, is another nod to the Twin Peaks aesthetic. That repetition is tolerable for the first eight songs our so, but, once you reach the back third of Household Name, the peaks and valleys of Momma’s songwriting style, or, really, Momma’s attempts to replicate their 90s heroes’ songwriting style, become too familiar, and the themes they explore less immediately satisfying. The only time Momma really mixes up the formula is exactly halfway through the record on “Tall Home,” whose snaking guitar leads, cloudy percussion, and menacing lyrics (“Never disrespect me”/”I’m the fucker down the street”) recalls Two of Us, and makes me wish that eventually the band will find a way to synthesize the two moods they’ve explored so into an album that could hold together as a Hold Steady-esque indie rock narrative.
But perhaps it’s fitting that, on some level, the reach of Household Name exceeds its grasp. This isn’t an album about achieving your dreams so much as it’s about dreaming, about imagining that there’s something better out there for yourself and committing fully to discovering it. In the context of the modern music industry that notion may seem outdated, perhaps even naive. But I’m glad that there’s at least one band out there trying to keep the dream alive.