Menomena: Peculiar Pop Perfectionists

Menomena: “Queen Black Acid”
Barsuk Records, 2010

[audio:|titles=Menomena: “Queen Black Acid”]

“The word epic got tossed around a lot,” says Danny Seim, the multi-talented drummer, singer, and songwriter for Portland, Oregon’s delightfully daring Menomena. Though he’s referring to the tone and tenor of the band’s 2010 release on Barsuk Records, Mines, he could very well be talking about the time that it took to develop the album.

“We were really motivated, as soon as we finished the Friend and Foe tour, to get back into it right away,” Seim says. “We started exchanging ideas [for new songs] back in early 2008, hoping to get something out by 2009.”

Ultimately, the trio’s enthusiasm to put out a new record couldn’t overcome its penchant for precision. In an era when many indie-rock bands feel intense pressure to follow their successes quickly and put a greater emphasis on speed than quality, Seim and bandmates Justin Harris and Brent Knopf spent three years refining Mines, making sure that it lived up to their exacting standards.

“We’re all such perfectionists,” Seim says, “and we didn’t feel good about spitting something out so quickly. And we’ve never dealt with real studio budgets; it’s always been us recording in bare-bones setups, which has been great for money purposes. But there are no deadlines or constraints, so we end up taking our sweet time.”

It was time well spent. Mines is a powerful follow-up to the band’s giddy 2007 predecessor, Friend and Foe, retaining that album’s densely layered sonic palette and kaleidoscopic zeal but also introducing a much calmer, much more relaxed atmosphere that demonstrates a growing patience and thoughtfulness.

“We’re all such perfectionists, and we didn’t feel good about spitting something out so quickly.”

Seim, Knopf, and Harris are seemingly everywhere at once, trading vocals, writing songs, and passing instruments back and forth, never afraid to try something different — a new combination of their talents and abilities that may lend each track a strange, new feeling.

“We’re more interested in writing more concise pop melodies than on Friend and Foe,” Seim says. But even Menomena’s idea of pop is wonderfully warped, and distinctly its own. For this band, restraint comes in the form of a track like “Sleeping Beauty,” a gently buzzing mélange of instruments that is seemingly limitless in depth. Drum loops cascade over pulsing, electronic gusts as flickers of acoustic guitar peek through the white noise. The song builds slowly and softly toward a grand climax, carried by the band’s captivating blue-eyed soul vocals.

Menomena excels at crafting these intricate, soaring anthems, but it knows how to have a good time too. The band’s sense of humor is on display on “TAOS,” or “The Art of Seduction,” where Harris struts for the ladies in a forthright, mock-ironic fashion. The tune made Seim blush at first, but it quickly became one of his favorite cuts.

Mines is distinguished by a significant evolution in the group’s lyrical maturity. Whereas on previous releases, words were an afterthought or merely another sonic element added to spice up the stew, here they take center stage and are, in many cases, the song’s main propellant.

“Tithe” begins with the devastating “Spending the best years / of a childhood / horizontal, on the floor…” while the kraut-inspired “Oh Pretty Boy, You’re Such a Pretty Boy” rides a hypnotic groove to the lyrical dénouement that could serve as the album’s motto: “And I feel, I feel / I’m showing my age.”

Brent Knopf’s “INTIL,” or “I Never Thought I’d Lie,” closes the album with a plaintive, Satie-like piano chime, with solitary notes ringing hollow in empty space as he unfurls what are perhaps the band’s most evocative and personal lyrics. Knopf sounds adrift, despondent until the last moment when Harris and Seim join in, lifting their friend and his song up, carrying them to its satisfying conclusion. It’s a beautiful resolution, fitting for a band whose greatest strengths are in its ability to work together and collaborate.

Menomena’s Myspace

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