Friend and Foe
Based on their output to this point, Oregonians Menomena are never going to be pigeonholed. Anagrammatically titled debut I am the Fun Blame Monster introduced their intoxicating musical bricolage, filled to the brim with ingenuity both soothing and bracing. Under an Hour, their aptly titled sophomore effort (hey, it was less than 60 minutes!), was an exclusively instrumental affair which soundtracked an obscure dance troupe. What's next, a reggae fusion cover project of Nuggets-era pop psychedelia? Not quite. But as you listen to Friend and Foe, you wouldn't be shocked to hear some of that thrown into the melting pot.
Inceptive track "Muscle 'N Flo" is a representative microcosm of the Menomena (Brent Knopf, Justin Harris, and Danny Seim) ideal: fractured drum smacks and oblique piano melodies that sputter until explosion, but packed tight with the inexplicable beauty of surgically placed saxophone bursts and simpatico vocals that do not just exist as instrumental backing. In fact, fans of their previous albums will encounter darker and more complex content than the band has ever covered. "Muscle" finds them exploring how much psychological effort it really takes to wake up in the morning and take on the day. "Make a call/Make some cash/Make your mark/Make it last" are lyrics that come through the speakers like exasperated mantras of pliable men. The concept appears tepid but in execution, it's altogether demiurgic.
Much of the album's following tracks have to deal with transmuting prosaic situations into virile, riveting stories. When siphoned through erratic cymbal crashes and sublime piano portions, "Duel," a Death Cab for Cutie-esque number about approaching self-criticism, somehow becomes more immediately identifiable. "The Pelican," while not remotely akin to the waterfowl, is the Menomena equivalent of "Closer," a stormy and undulating kiss-off that will somehow get stuck in your head. While the subject matter examined is damn near psychotic at times - for example, "Evil Bee," though wonderfully catchy and including their catchiest bassline ever, could be about one's descent into hopelessness, madness, or robo-fetishism - the genre-bending musicality keeps our ears eager and our minds open.
"Ghostship" and "West" close the album out on unexpectedly tepid notes that are more than a bit disappointing but given the rock-solid nature of their preceding numbers, Friend and Foe can easily be forgiven. Menomena could have traveled further into gimmick status but they chose the more difficult path. They have moved from teaching us about wordplay to teaching us about ourselves and from soundtracking obscurity to soundtracking the daily cacophony we generally shy away from addressing. Where they go next is anyone's guess. Menomena have truly come into their own.
Release date: January 23, 2007
Rating: 8.8 / 10
On the web: http://www.menomena.com
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