Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Music Review: Menomena - Mines

"More than most any modern band, I get the feeling that Menomena really respect the notion of quality control. Sure, it’s easy to point to their casual release schedule for proof—three albums in seven years, and another long-form experiment that was purposefully deemed a one-off (2005s Under an Hour)—but it’s also glaringly obvious in their attention to everything from production values to album artwork (which, if nothing else, continues to lend credence to the physical consumption of music). So when it comes to their newest album, Mines, it’s really no longer a question of “good” or “bad”, since we’re basically guaranteed quality at this point, but just how good this thing can possibly turn out. The short answer: really fucking good. And this, on their least obviously experimental album to date, is nothing short of galvanizing—one of America’s best art-pop band’s reconciling all their disparate tendencies into yet another endlessly fascinating and subtly complex exploration of the pop form.

With its increased attention to what you could call more traditional songwriting, Mines certainly ran the risk of falling limp in the shadow of such dizzying experiments as 2003s left-field classic I Am the Fun Blame Monster and 2007s kaleidoscopic Friend and Foe, but instead Menomena sound more focused than ever. When you literally had to invent your own software to realize these nascent ideas—and how, as a result, no other music sounds quite like your own—there’s an inevitable tendency on the listeners behalf to become so accustom to this intricate process of creation that any refinement or sonic concurrence can easily go unnoticed. The opening lyric of Mines seems to hint at this realization—“Sometimes I get so caught in my ways/Sometimes I overlook the simple plains”—and as such, it’s an appropriate thread, both sonically and thematically, to keep in mind as the record moves forward. The track (“Queen Black Acid”), appropriately enough, is also a ballad, so it begs to reason that Menomena are once again in complete control of their environment.

What we’re left with, then, paradoxically, is an album more sonically palatable, but one that also plays around with structure and melody in such a liberal manner that it probably ends up being less immediate than what has preceded (Friend and Foe, for all its sonic chutes and ladders, housed some pretty effective pop tracks). So basically, it’s another distinct and distinctly Menomena-type production, meaning there are tracks such as the moody, piano-touched “Killemall” and the slow-rise, negative space accentuating “Tithe” to offset the vocal grandeur of “TAOS” and the winding, horn-accented “Five Little Rooms”. There’s also “Oh Pretty Boy, You’re Such a Big Boy”, which I swear is attempting adopt the stray-jazz strut of Clipse’s “Young Boy”, all the way down to the piano runs and squirrely bits of synth that eventually punctuate each bar. Each of these pieces reiterates just how skilled these guys are in the studio, as each piano strike is full-bodied, each guitar line richly rendered, and all manner of percussion squarely supportive of each contrasting element. There may not be a better sounding record released all year.

As lyricists, Brent Knopf and Danny Seim are noticeably more confident. If I had to guess, I’d say there is probably three times the amount of lyrics on Mines than on Blame Monster. This is due in no small part to their time working outside Menomena in various side projects, but the end result is a series of mantra-like pronouncements that worm their way into off-kilter melodies just as effectively (if less immediately) as anything on Friend and Foe. Early on, Seim dejectedly delivers the line "I’d like to/Go home/Go home" as if at wits end, while album centerpiece “BOTE” repeatedly prays “Sea legs/Please don't fail me now”. As these mantras play out almost subconsciously, Mines reveals its dark underbelly, evidenced most disarmingly on “Tithe”, as most instrumentation falls away to leave a single voice intoning such potentially disturbing observations as “Spending the best years of a childhood horizontal on the floor.” It renders the record’s climatic lyric (from “Five Little Rooms”) “All this could be yours/Someday” vaguely ominous in comparison.

Nevertheless, it’s thematically in line with the record’s overall mood, and while 55 minutes of this kind of aesthetic and thematic determination can be trying, the rewards are ripe for the taking, as each subsequent listen reveals more and more purpose behind each carefully dispersed note and elliptically deployed lyric. Mines is not only further proof that Menomena hold themselves to an impressively high standard that most band’s could only dream of approaching, but it’s a fantastic studio creation in its own right. For this very reason I get the feeling that in the future, as many a buzz band inevitably fall behind the wayside, the music of Menomena will continue to engage and endure." [83/100] [Published: 08.05.10]

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