Feature Album: Menomena
Menomena have always done things their own way. After forming in 2000, the Portland, Oregon experimental rock trio spent the next three years painstakingly recording their debut lp, the manically creative and thoroughly original I Am The Fun Blame Monster, using software custom-designed by one of the band's three multi-instrumentalists, Brent Knopf. After striking out with labels, the band released the album themselves, complete with an elaborate 80-page flipbook designed and hand assembled by drummer/percussionist/vocalist Danny Seim. When labels came knocking, offering to release the album sans the flipbook, the band politely refused.
From the beginning, Menomena has been a strict, and sometimes strained, democracy: there has never been a primary songwriter or vocalist in the band; in writing, recording and playing, each member does almost everything. Despite living in the same city, the trio typically records their albums via email, each member painstakingly cutting and pasting and editing and arranging and passing on tracks until they're all satisfied –– a glacial and sometimes difficult process that takes as long as it takes.
Menomena's unique way of going about things has yielded some undeniably great music over the last ten years. After I Am The Fun Blame Monster and an instrumental lp of starker, longer workouts, the band spent another three years putting together 2007's Friend and Foe, an album shot through with more ideas and left turns than many bands come up with in a career, and a record that deservedly broke Menomena to a much wider audience.
Despite the momentum granted by two critically acclaimed albums and several worldwide tours, it would be another three years of secluded, separate recording until Menomena returned with Mines, their oft-delayed –– and thoroughly excellent –– 2010 lp.
Mines, like everything Menomena has done, is a meticulously constructed piece of music –– the sound of a restless, gifted and exuberant trio of perfectionists who work and rework their ideas separately and obsessively, building and rebuilding songs until they've created something they can all agree on.
The most immediately noticeable difference on Mines is the use of space. Despite being constructed from hundreds of loops, Mines is the sparest, leanest Menomena lp yet. From the shafts of panned feedback that float in and out of the opener, 'Queen Black Acid', to the baritone sax bursts snaking underneath 'Five Little Rooms', to the album's gorgeous solo piano coda, each sound feels deliberately chosen and scrupulously placed.
All of which makes Mines a noticeably less manic and hyperactive record than its predecessors, more understated and assured. It's the sound of a band happy to run with an idea for a little while longer than might have a few years ago; the sound of a band who no longer needs to turn everything upside down several times within a song.
Opener 'Queen Black Acid' is a case in point, with its stately, slow-burning build delivering a great payoff in the song's second half, when feedback squalls rise in and out of the trio's soaring harmonies, Seim's skittering drums –– sounding enormous, in the Flaming Lips mould –– holding it all together. On Queen Black Acid, as on the brooding 'Oh Pretty Boy, You're Such a Big Boy' and most of the album's tracks, the trio trade rapid gear changes for a clear and focused momentum that lends the songs a real depth and resonance.
This a Menomena record, though, and there are still enough dazzling stylistic leaps to leave your head spinning. On 'TAOS', strutting, stop-start fuzz-rock gives way, in the song's mid-section, to slow-building, piano-led, layered harmonies, which then burn up in cathartic barroom skronk. The next track, 'Killemall', opens with dramatic piano and toms and siren-like horns, before shifting, halfway through, into jangly, delicate pop, before the piano and horns re-emerge for the finale.
Lyrically, Mines is a document of a tumultuous few years for Menomena, both personally and as a band, and a raw vulnerability bleeds through the songs. On 'Tithe', the three intone that 'nothing sounds appealing'; on the swinging, skronky BOTE, Knopf compares his situation to being in a sinking boat, hoping that his sea legs don't fail him.
Happily, though, Mines, for all the difficulty hinted at in its lyrics, retains every bit of the energy and inventiveness that have endeared Menomena to so many: if anything, it's the sound of a band refusing to give in to dark times, who'd rather play through them instead. 'Maturing' can be such a dirty, misused word, but here it's probably the right one: Mines is the sound of a band getting older, going through some heavy shit, and coming out with different, and in many cases better, songs.
Less than six months after Mines was released, Brent Knopf left the band, saying he wanted to concentrate on other projects. The other members have vowed to plough on, continuing through their 2011 touring schedule, including the Laneway dates. After that, it's unclear what will become of this remarkable, consistently surprising band. One thing is for certain, though: if Mines is to be their swansong, it's a fine and fitting one indeed.