Menomena - Mines

by James Bray Rating:8 Release Date:2010-07-26

Regarding obscure, but very interesting, American bands, it's always helpful to establish some kind of context. For the uninitiated, Menomena are an experimental American rock band from Portland, Oregon. The group comprises three members; Brent Knopf, Justin Harris and Dany Seim and their first album was released in 2003. Mines, their fourth record, is a diverse and musically sophisticated album that is characteristic of the best sides of Portland's burgeoning hipster scene. Fortunately, it doesn't suffer from the superficiality of scenester hipness, in as much as it has plenty of content for all its artful style.

Menomena have always asserted the conceptual and experimental sides of their music. There were the esoteric ideas of melodies produced by home-made computer programmes that constituted their first effort I Am the Fun Blame Monster which, of course, is an anagram of The First Menomena Album. Their second record, (2004's Under an Hour) is basically a piece of installation art that was originally conceived as the accompanying music to an experimental dance performance; it has three movements 'Water', 'Flour' and 'Light'. It's evident then, that Menomena have always flouted the mainstream, though they their best work is permeated with genuine talent and a pop sensibility that would, to their dismay, increase their demographic.

We're eased in to this record by 'Queens Black Acid'whichhas a more conventional, if sweeping, alternative rock structure. However, by the second song, 'TAOS', we're already free of the restraints of such indie protocol ; one of the compelling refrains of this song appropriately declares, "I cut my leash and walk away" while a baritone saxophone intermittently plays the melody. The combination of piano, bass, guitar, drums and midi sound effects creates a surprisingly expansive and atmospheric soundscape. Such musical dynamism is vaguely reminiscent of The Flaming Lips, Modest Mouse or even a more psychotropic Lambchop. Menomena's melodies crescendo to mantras; they're obviously aiming for some kind of musical rapture and on the best parts of Mines, that's what they achieve. They're a bit like an electrified, liberalised, Portland version of folksy Texan dreamers, Midlake.

On Mines, Menomena's musical virtuosity, switching fluently between guitars, saxophone and piano, allows them to expand on their exuberant psychedelic-indie to create something that is much more symphonic. Such dynamic changes are most evident on songs like 'Taos', '5 Little Rooms' and 'Killemall'. The fact that all three members of the group sing on the record adds greatly to an album that is already extremely diverse; the vocal styles range from the ebullient declarations of 'Taos' to the gentle poignancy of 'INTIL'. The group also add even more texture to the already atmospheric songs by using complex vocal harmonies throughout the record. Regarding the lyrics in Mines, at their worst they are psychedelic platitudes, such as the "rabbit holes" and "open books" of 'Queen Black Acid'; however, at their best the words evoke a surrealist vision of Americana, warning us to "leave the lunchmeat for the sharks" on 'Lunchmeat' or declaring "This is a play that takes place in a freezer" in the excellent, '5 Little Rooms'.

This album was home-recorded and is released about three and half years since their last record. It's obvious that Menomena enjoy the freedom of being protracted from the mainstream music industry. They are obviously, and justifiably, very protective of their counter-culture credentials. Experimentation, whimsy and innovation are all essential to the group's collective identity. In Mines and their last album (2007's Friend and Foe) the group have managed to reconcile their artistic convictions and their musical integrity with their ability to write catchy tunes. They make music that remains progressive and innovative whilst still being accessible and compelling. The music in Mines harmonises the musical talents and sensibilities of their three very individual musicians and the result is a dynamic and engaging album. This kind of music beats any entertainment industry cynicism or reductive music journalism - how refreshing.

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