Mother Tongues make pretty, pristine music about messy, primal emotions: a brand of dream-pop that’s teeming with the sort of thoughts that can keep you up at night. The Toronto group’s debut full-length, Love in a Vicious Way, is an album of love songs, but they’re less interested in the blissful final destination than the arduous emotional journey. This isn’t so much a record of stories as a catalog of sensations: the animalistic nature of desire, the fight-or-flight response to falling for someone, the anguish of needing to know if your feelings are being reciprocated, and the grim thoughts that fester when your partner is no longer at your side.
That mix of euphoria and fear finds its musical manifestation in a disorienting sound that hovers between eras, vibes, and indie-pop subgenres. Singer-bassist Charise Aragoza and guitarist Lukas Cheung came up in the same 2010s noise-rock scene that yielded local favorites like Dilly Dally and Odonis Odonis, and some of that grungy residue could be detected on Mother Tongues’ free-ranging 2020 debut EP, Everything You Wanted. But these days, the group is closer in sound and spirit to pandemic home-recording hero Hannah Bussiere Kim, aka Luna Li, who played in an earlier iteration of Mother Tongues, while Aragoza has performed in Kim’s touring band. Like Luna Li, the Mother Tongues savvily blur the line between ’60s psych pop and ’90s dream pop, while feeding orchestral elements, Gainsbourgian grooves, and strobe-lit electronics into their cinematic swirl. But Mother Tongues are distinguished by their sense of unrest. Immersing yourself in their lustrous sound world is easy; making it out peacefully is another matter.
Unsurprisingly, Aragoza and Cheung cite Broadcast as a crucial influence on their delicate balance of retro style and spectral sonics. Having faithfully covered “Come On, Let’s Go” a few years back, Mother Tongues open Love in a Vicious Way with what’s essentially their own attempt at rewriting that song. “A Heart Beating” instantly lures you in with its cool go-go-dancer beat and twinkling textures, but its despondent, self-flagellating verses give way to an anxious chorus line—“A heart beating/Inside an animal”—that reads like a threat of an imminent attack, while Aragoza’s eerie wordless vocal incantations shift the mood from heady to haunted. The following “Dance in the Dark” then blindsides you with something you don’t often hear from dream-pop bands—a mutant metal riff—before introducing a ping-ponging, Stereolab-like hook that’s as delectable as it is desperate: “Why can’t we just be/Two lone souls floating side by side?”
Though it’s billed as Mother Tongues’ first full-length, Love in a Vicious Way is only five minutes longer than the EP that preceded it, but the distinction is important: Where Everything You Wanted captured a nascent group drifting through a shoegaze haze and taking the occasional dubby detour, Love in a Vicious Way feels more cohesive; its panoramic production makes the band’s diverse influences seem like natural parts of the same ecosystem. This band can get a lot done in a tight, three-minute timeframe: “Drip Drip” begins as a wistful rainy-day reverie about missing someone so much it hurts (“Body quake/No sleep tonight/Put your hands on me/I need that feeling”), but as Cheung and co-producer Asher Gould-Murtagh layer on the string effects, cosmic synth doodles, and gleaming guitars, the song floats off into outer space, transforming its carnal thoughts into cerebral sensations. (Ironically, when Mother Tongues do give themselves more space, they struggle to fill it: “Luv 2 Liv” begins as an intriguing goth/psych mash-up that gives the doomy, descending riff of “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” a swinging-’60s Franco-pop spin, but ends up going in circles as it shimmies past the five-minute mark.)
Fittingly for an album preoccupied with the more unsettling aspects of romance, Love in a Vicious Way culminates in a song that depicts passion as a death pact. The glistening “Worm Day” is effectively Mother Tongues’ own “Just Like Heaven,” a tune where the guitars sparkle as brightly as the lyrics are dark. But the location has shifted from the raging sea that stole the only girl Robert Smith loved to the cemetery where Aragoza imagines resting next to her one and only for all eternity. “I lie down in the dirt beside you/I lie down in this shallow grave,” she sings, “So come take me home.” Traditional marriage vows may define the lifespan of a relationship up to the moment where “death do us part,” but Mother Tongues would rather sing about the sort of wild, ungovernable love for which even dying provides no limit.