Wednesday, August 1, 2007

worth spending money on, volume tres

if you've been playing the home game (and if you're reading this blog, i'd say the likelihood of that is fairly high), then what i have to say is not going to surprise you. but just in case you've been out of the loop for the past several months, here's a real shocker: you should go out to the store right now, and fork over some paltry dollars for the incredible menomena sophomore album, friend and foe. until sometime around christmas last year, menomena was a name new to me, and it was only from a brief stereogum post that i learned their name and got a taste of the quiet excitement that surrounded their second release. the great reception it received from pitchfork (the first BNM nod of the year) only sweetened the deal, and drove me to undertake the safest option for anyone hearing about a new band - i downloaded friend and foe.

oh, the blissful ease of torrents! the typing of letters, a little hunting, a few clicks, the brief wait, and voila! an album. the problem (for me, at least), is convincing myself of the need to listen to these albums that i've just acquired for next-to-nothing. friend and foe came out just as i was getting acquainted with the blogosphere, and i hadn't been quick enough on the draw to get any menomena mp3s, and i had no idea what to expect from the album. so friend and foe lingered in my library for some months, until, struck by the dreaded i-need-something-new-to-listen-to disease, i put it on my shuffle. at first, i was unimpressed. the only song that caught my ear was "the pelican," after which i usually passed on to another album. before you call me overhasty ("the pelican" is friend and foe's second track), et me offer a few words in my defense. despite the egalitarian simplicity of torrents, they are not without their own flaws, as i discovered after my purchase of friend and foe (mr. mammoth is no hypocrite). what i must have downloaded was a pre-release version of the album, a slightly smudged precursor of the final cut. among its differences (which also included different takes of "the pelican" and "air aid," as well as a alternate title for "my my"), was a complete shakeup of the album's middle tracks. it still opened with "muscle n' flo" and ended with the "evil bee" - "ghostship" - "west" trilogy - which, ultimately, probably made the album less accessible at first, but didn't alter its overall excellence in the slightest. so, even though many of the tracks that preceded "the pelican" in my bootleg version are now among my favorites, none of them really captured my attention during initial listens. a month after friend and foe's dry run in my shuffle, i returned to the album, for the simple reason that "the pelican" was inextricably stuck in my head, and i know of no other remedy for that than to listen to the song, which i did. since then (now that i listen not only to "the pelican," but the songs that surround it), friend and foe has, basically, remained on my regular album rotation. i can't get enough of it - and if you haven't given it a chance yet, now is the time to do so. for its enduring quality, sheer brilliance, and simple audacity, i name friend and foe the third album that is worth spending money on. read on for why.

there are, by my count, four best tracks on friend and foe: "air aid," "the pelican," "running," and "evil bee." this last one is my absolute favorite, primarily because of the lyrics (and bitchin' saxophone parts). "oh to be a machine / oh to be wanted, to be useful" croons guitarist/pianist brent knopf, a declaration of such stunning simplicity and earnestness that it wins you over immediately. "evil bee," like most menomena songs, is an ADD hodgepodge of sounds, stitched together piecemeal, almost haphazardly, but striking in its forthrightness. there is nothing hidden in menomena songs: there are only surprises, like the recurring maracas and the abrupt saxophone notes, used (at first) to punctuate the end of phrases (rather than in a leading role, as it is used in songs like "boyscout'n"), before it blends seamlessly into their soundscape. menomena's work lends itself to ordinarily foolish words like "soundscapes" very well - there are few better ways to describe their delightfully arbitrary sound matching, of adding melodies for the sheer cheek of it. they recklessly bend all rules of song structure, carelessly discarding chourses when they are not needed, or creating climaxes merely from a repetition of phrases, and then pulling the carpet out from underneath them, musically speaking. one song from friend and foe has more variety than most albums, and the work's quirkiness never bogs it down - unlike some progressive bands, who try to lump too much imagination into one song, menomena's inventiveness is almost sparse, always gently, lovingly putting song pieces together, never bulldozing their creativity down our ears.

one of my favorite things about menomena is the harmonies. while knopf and bassist/ saxophonist justin harris generally front the band, often trading off song by song, all three lend their voices to the others', fleshing out the vocals to the point where it is almost impossible to tell which parts are real and which are studio-produced. this is especially true on songs like "air aid," "rotten hell" (those two are tied for "cleverest song title," because of the way they are sung), and "wet and rusting." for menomena, the voice is not merely a device for delivering lyrics (which are highly sophisticated for such a young band), it is an instrument in and of itself, to a degree that is rarely heard elsewhere. in addition to the subtlety and nuances of their vocals, menomena also has some seriously exceptional drumming. i remember being struck by danny seim's drumming when i saw menomena some weeks ago - his energy and intensity far outstripped that of his bandmates, at least in terms of sweat. seim was dripping by the end of their set, the natural result of his labor. it is rare that i notice drums (beyond the cursory acknowledgment), but his drum lines are more than just underlying reinforcement, or a rhythm keeper, or any role that drums far too frequently function as - they are, like menomena's voices, an equal part of the music, adding its own style to the overall mix, never staying static but always fluctuating with the circumstances, fluid and versatile.

menomena's trademark is unexpectedness, a trait that is obvious from the first track, "muscle 'n flo." a jagged, abrupt guitar interrupts drawn out, stately notes and delicate piano, alternating between serenity and anxiety. "muscle 'n flo" is also one of the few songs that has something like verses and a bridge - many of their songs are just laid bare, stripped of pretense and false modesty. they stand proud without bowing to conventionality, one of the album's most endearing traits. i also find menomena's lyricism to be remarkable - it goes far beyond the wistfulness of gibbard or the historicity of meloy, disdaining continuity or even sense, focusing all their energy on turning clever/endearing phrases like "if only jesus would wash my feet" or "rain is falling through the floor " or "cover your ears / cover your eyes / cover your mouth / silence / blindness / tasteless violence," putting a new twist on the "hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil" aphorism. however, their best lyricism cannot be taken out of context - like their voices, or drumming, or any other instrument in their arsenal, menomena's lyrics are another layer of songsmithing.

on "air aid," harris sings about "people of the future," and that's exactly who the album is about. it's not a big stretch to say menomena is a little too cool for school - their rhythms, effects, and sheer bizarreness can't possibly have come from the same era as the black eyed peas, yet here it is. i don't doubt that harris, knopf, and seim are not a little startled by the immense acclaim friend and foe has received, though they shouldn't be. the word "pop" has far too many negative connotations right now, but, still, friend and foe is distinctly that: it straddles the line between the past and future of pop, and it is little wonder that people clamor to it, singing its praises. definitely WSMO, definitely awesome.

menomena - "the pelican," "wet and rusting." buy friend and foe here. live photo from nailgun.

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