As refreshing as it can be to hear something truly spontaneous, unfussed and aesthetically raw, there’s a lot to be said of a keen attention to detail. Were it not for a strong work ethic, or a strong focus on delivering a listener more than just a periodical assortment of random songs, Menomena would not be the band we know them as today. Having delivered four albums in seven years, the Portland indie trio isn’t exactly hermetic, but it’s clear their prolificacy hinges upon a certain sense of wholeness or cohesion. Each of their albums (including odd man out Under an Hour) is constructed to be just that-a complete piece of art, from the strength of the songwriting, to the flow of the tracklist, to the artwork, which is never anything less than visually dazzling.
The group’s fourth album Mines arrives more than three years after their excellent 2007 effort Friend and Foe, the work of months and months of laborious writing, looping and layering. It’s every bit as intricate and detailed as its predecessor, right down to its artwork, which is, yet again, a visual feast. But where Friend and Foe had a sharp, quirky edge and a perpetually woozy sense of ecstasy about it, the songs on Mines are more nuanced and subtle. These songs burn slowly and carefully, slowly taking shape to form some of the most gorgeous melodies in the band’s oeuvre.
In an overall sense, the music on Mines is easily identifiable as the work of Menomena. Yet, when such a band contains multitudes, as they most certainly do, what that encapsulates is not only quite broad, but even somewhat difficult to define. The eerie melody, deep baritone sax and vocal harmonies of standout “Five Little Rooms” characterize the song as something that only Menomena could create. It’s muscular yet delicate, meticulously crafted but loose, and catchy without boasting any obvious hooks. In pieces, it’s fascinating, but as a whole, it’s sublime.
“Five Little Rooms” is merely a microcosm of the whole of Mines. As an album, it comprises numerous standouts, but it only grows more awe-inspiring as it progresses. In fact, its opener, “Queen Black Acid,” is its simplest, least explosive song on first listen, composed of little more than a simple percussive pattern, a gurgling electronic bassline and some major key guitar jangle. But while that simple pattern remains constant, it’s just a simple foundation upon which the band layers shards of buzzsaw guitar noise and elegant piano twinkle. And with the doors to the band’s heady, sideways world opened with such a gently twisted invitation, they let loose on second track “TAOS,” a squealing, pummeling guitar rocker that’s the closest the band has ever come to Led Zeppelin’s towering majesty.
The extremes within the first two songs set some wide parameters for Menomena to stretch out their elastic, dynamic sound. “Killemall” begins with a tense, inflated introduction fit for a crime drama before ushering in a persistent bass groove, elegantly adorned with signature touches of piano. “Dirty Cartoons” is largely sparse in arrangement, but heavy on emotional pull, with the refrain “I’d like to go home…go home” growing heavier with each repetition. “Tithe” takes nearly a minute and a half before its plinks of xylophone morph into a fully formed melody, but that 90 second mark also brings some sharp jabs of guitar, followed another 45 seconds later with a gorgeous mixture of bass, piano and urgent drum beats. And “BOTE” is positively epic in its psychedelic blend of guitar pyrotechnics and buzzing saxophone hooks.
Menomena’s creativity is just as wild and as unbounded as on their previous efforts. And, more importantly, just as on I Am the Fun Blame Monster or Friend and Foe, the Portland trio maintains their commitment to fusing together a magnificent whole. Mines is undoubtedly a strong set of songs, and one that finds the band maintaining a creative high that began long ago. But it’s also a fine example of the rewards a band can yield when it remains so committed to its craft.
MP3: “Five Little Rooms”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.