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Menomena – Mines (and how it got here)

January 10, 2011

There was a time – not too long ago – when I couldn’t wait for my favourite artists to release their new material. When said material finally did arrive, I’d spend weeks endlessly playing and replaying the music; poring over the tracks until I eventually reached my saturation point. Over the last two or three years though, this behaviour has all but ceased.

Perhaps it’s because certain artists never stood a chance of living up to my expectations that I have developed a fear of being let down.  But rather than fear, it is with apathy that I tend to greet new releases by previously favoured artists. Truth be told, there are just too many artists that I like these days, and so many of their records hark back to times in my life that feel so distant to me now. When Vampire Weekend released Contra and Born Ruffians Say it, they were just another two albums that I didn’t really have time to listen to. The problem is; there’s just no investment in music anymore. Let’s face it; if I were so inclined, I could download Belle & Sebastian’s new album and stick it in my iTunes in a matter of minutes. If I choose never to listen to that record, it doesn’t matter; no physical or financial exertion was required to garner it.

Contra and Say it were, however, two of my favourite albums from last year. When I look back though, I feel like it took way more time and effort than it really ought to have, and this is all starting to feed the growing paranoia I have; that I am becoming too impatient with music. I attribute my (relatively) newfound interest in blues, soul, punk and hip-hop to this phenomenon. To me, these are the genres that are most instantly intoxicating; hooks are rife, and the musicianship – nay, the craftsmanship – can be grasped from the first listen. Of course this isn’t a problem, but I can’t help feeling that there is a part of me that still longs for the values of slow-burning subtlety that are prevalent in the indie music I came to love when I was so much younger. For this reason, I’ve become quite fond of Menomena’s latest album, Mines.

Wait a minute…

…slow-burning subtlety?

Menomena?

For the uninitiated, Menomena are a trio of Portland lads who bludgeoned their way into my musical consciousness with a cacophony of barking vocals, staccato style and maybe the noisiest drummer I’ve ever heard. For all their talent and charm, Menomena wouldn’t have known subtlety if it had slapped them in the face with a damp kipper…(subtle, like).

Mines, Menomena’s third studio album, immediately sets a different tone to their previous fare. The artwork; a neo-classical statue placed in the foreground of a serene forest, is a marked departure from the cartoon drawings of previous albums. Turn the music on and, for the first time on a Menomena record, you are greeted with melody, not a cavalcade of drum rolls.

Menomena – Queen Black Acid

As a three-piece, Menomena often work beyond their means, with multi-instrumentalists Danny Seim and Brent Knopf – the melodic core of the band – often playing several different instruments in one song, and occasionally two at the same time. Because of this, Menomena have always understood the importance of propulsive percussion in tying together disparate ideas into a cohesive whole. This formula has always yielded quirky, but utterly charismatic music. Yet, at times, their music has a tendency to feel bare, with large drum solos filling the gaps between the interspersed melodies.

On Mines, the formula has not changed, but the band have adapted to suit its limitations. There is more of a focus on melody in each of the songs, with Menomena preferring to build upon and evolve a single melody as opposed to tying together several different ones. In a lot of cases, the choruses reveal themselves to be codas as, layer by layer, Menomena build dense and hauntingly lush soundscapes. This change of approach necessitates different production values on Mines. Stylistically, this is still undeniably a Menomena record, yet Menomena have never sounded so full – so much so, that tactically-employed moments of calm sound enormously refreshing, with the now seldom-used drum solo proving a real treat on ‘Dirty Cartoons’ and ‘Five Little Rooms’.

Menomena – Dirty Cartoons

By far the biggest surprise on Mines, however, is the lyrics, which are completely unmissable. I have to be honest; a great deal of the time I have spent listening to music in my life, I have ignored lyrics. To me, many artists use lyrics to compliment the music; like a kind of vocabulary for the sound. Unless the artist is telling a story, I have not often felt a need to interpret the lyrics, but on Mines interpretation is an inevitability.  This is partly because, despite being so explicit, many of the lyrics are intriguingly ambiguous. Some of the songs are analogous; an approach seemingly favoured by Knopf – who sings about a sinking ship on ‘BOTE’. However, he is significantly outclassed by Seim, who is often strikingly honest; exemplified by his brilliant description of inebriated lechery on ‘TAOS’. On many occasions Seim sings of struggling romance and an inability to relate to someone close. This is hardly revolutionary subject matter, but Seim takes it on with such boldness that I find listening to him incredibly captivating.

There are so many facets that make Mines such a curious album that it actually makes it quite difficult to digest in only a few listens. Initially I was very unimpressed by Mines, but having trusted in Menomena, I am very pleased to say that this album has an awful lot to give. Not only is it the first album in a long time that has truly rewarded me for sticking with it, but it is also one I have enjoyed listening to over and over again. I can tell it’s special because I enjoy all its little foibles; like the sax solo on ‘Dirty Cartoons’, the Scritti Politti-esque synth on ‘Oh Pretty Boy…’ or the way ‘Five Little Rooms’ ends.

Menomena have clearly invested a lot of time and attention into these songs and it shows – this is easily Menomena’s best offering yet. However, Mines is not a dark and brooding album by accident; it is laden with the tension of a band on the brink, and unfortunately Mines will likely be a swansong of sorts, as Brent Knopf has announced that he is leaving Menomena to pursue his solo project, Ramona Falls.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. j-diz permalink
    January 13, 2011 4:25 pm

    Thanks for saving this album from the scrapheap that is my iTunes library. Was quite disappointed at first but now I’ve given it a few run throughs it’s as good as any of their previous albums – maybe even better.

  2. Chris Bingo permalink
    January 13, 2011 4:54 pm

    Ditto to Jason’s comment. Although on my part they have always been a band that I keep half listening to, which I guess comes from the whole impatience thing.

    Must say I also worry a lot about becoming impatient with music – the best albums are the ones I can still listen to after 20 or so times 6 months down the line and sometimes my brain just isn’t willing to make that effort.

    Thankfully long drives and a USB radio make things somewhat easier to digest. Contra definitely got most of it’s early listens that way.

  3. Athénaïs permalink
    January 19, 2011 9:40 pm

    I think that the fact that we become more “impatient” with music is related to our age… I reckon that the last time I was passionate about an artist, to such an extent that I would listen to it millions of times, was when I was still a teenager… But I think it’s also related to the digitalisation of music. When we used to buy CDs everything was different… I miss those times! You couldn’t afford 30 albums in a month, so you would enjoy one or two at a time and thus listening to it constantly.

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