writing about music and movies among other things in hopes of selling ad space in the future or getting a job writing about music and movies among other things

Friday, July 23, 2010

Luke reviews the new Menomena

Artist: Menomena
Album: Mines
Label: Barsuk
Year: 2010

The loop software Menomena has used since its inception is an easy element of the band toward which to gravitate for any music writer. It is originally what made them sound so interesting when I first came across a review for their debut. On a recent NPR blurb, the software alone takes up an entire paragraph. And it's taken up one of mine as well, which is interesting because Mines is the first album of theirs' where the last thing I thought about is how they composed and arranged it. How does one of pop's weirdest and most composition-based bands sound when they finally just get together to kick around some riffs? We still may never know, but Mines is a compelling approximation.

With Menomena's second album, Under an Hour (still not off their history yet, sorry), they had recorded music specifically written for a trio of dance pieces. It was interesting, but had the drawback of sounding like what it was: a series of calculated "pieces" by a band whose strength would later prove to be their "songs." With "Taos," the band uses their now-trademark brass punctuations and extensive vocal harmonies in a way that doesn't invade the songspace, but rather enhances Danny Seim's vocals. The main vocal is able to carry cohesively from verse to chorus to bridge while creating an illusion that they're all one single melodic phrase that skitters wildly along one thru-line. The lyric "Now I'm a social pest,/ but not yet willing to put my walls to rest/ till I'm done filling these/ Holes/ I bet I know/ what you like..." for example follows a verse into a chorus within the middle of a sentence. The accomplishment is even more effective because it happens with no pomp whatsoever, quietly existing as an unadorned song writing miracle.

The album is full of these twists on pop theory, and yet none stand out from the songs themselves. They're there if you look for them, an album worth really dissecting if you have a mind to, but ultimately these are big brains more in touch with making a good song. The instrumentation is all top-tier. The rhythmic interplay between the bass and the drums is perfect, the piano is driving and at times gorgeous, the guitar soars over it all crazy and regal at once, but none of them stand out from one another. Everything is to serve the greater good, which in this case means songs that carry you along to various emotional checkpoints of joy and melancholy, which for all their calculated nature still hit hard. These are songs with more emotional heft than usual, songs able to explore and expand not only the limits of musical tradition but of what it is to be a weird complicated human. The sort of sustenance most crave in a band that has so often been described as "pop." In "Tithe," Seims sings in a truly haunted tone about roads that lead nowhere, the rapture, a world in upheaval. All in a constant groove that drives past the melancholy of lines like "Someone retired/ on a percentage/ of the tithe that paved these roads./ They lead to nowhere, but they're still gridlocked made of Solomon's pure gold."

The mash-up here of musical depth as well as raw expression causes one to reminisce on the days when bands like Arcade Fire and TV On the Radio were still members of a "burgeoning" wave of new artists. And yet Menomena has been there with them the whole time. But never quite "there" until now. Ladies and gentlemen, from Portland, Oregon, I'm very pleased to introduce: Menomena.

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