Friend and Foe
aving spent a fair amount of time huddled under Portland’s late-year cloak in the past few months, I understand how the city—fair of roses and rain—birthed a band like Menomena. It’s a place for youth, younger than you remember ever being, and a smug swath of neon against grainy, industrial terrains. It inherits shaggy American Apparel cynics—every coffee house youth hooded and lost to you—out of swashbucklers and Shanghai pasts, much the way Menomena tangles itself in so much yore and yesterday—from the Beach Boys to Joy Division, the Flaming Lips to early-era Radiohead—in order to create something willfully idiosyncratic, and, as of 2003, downright novel against the hovel.
Following that year’s muscular debut, I Am the Fun Blame Monster—replete with flip-book packaging and the use of the band’s famed Deeler computer program, which was designed by guitarist/programmer Brent Knopf and allowed the band to capture short musical interludes and draw them out into longer loops to play live—and 2005’s perplexing Under an Hour, an instrumental production assembled for the dance group Monster Squad, Menomena returns with another sinewy affair in Friend or Foe, full of its homesake’s drizzle, coastal-damp, and an unclenched sun over misfit warehouses. But there are subtle shifts at work with the band, and most allow their shady songcraft to emerge from overt experimentalism—perhaps too aware of its own inventiveness—into the realms of “art-pop.” They maintain the knack for dogleg shifts in sound that was so evident on IAtFBM, moving from elegance to punchy frat-bass in a matter of breaths, only to scatter their caffeine pull with a nod to the nod. A gorgeous moment of harmonizing pimples into swaying skronk sax, or one of their brawny rhythms muffles into the sound of a piano, alone, buried under swampwater. There are huffed out “ha!”’s deep in the mix, near oblivion, and even pulpy tufts of noise in a moment of space.
Listen to the way opener “Muscle ‘n’ Flo” turns a thick street rumble into an aerial church psalm, with its barrel-housing sounding like the Walkmen’s debut, or the way, after its rowdy cabaret opening, the brilliant “The Pelican” blasphemes and tenors like Brian Wilson mixed atop a Sumner-as-Albrecht squall. Shit, “Boyscout’n” has the indecency to offer us a glimpse of the Seven Dwarves whistling over a ragged sax-bop before pulling out the chair—piano in a haze of chloroform, now just where’d that beat go? Likewise, album closer “West” strangles a sub-audible gasp out of the quietest whisper—piano and drums cutting back to xylophone and a vocal treatment that sounds like Conan O’Brien’s “Year 2000” gag. But beneath these twists lie some of Menomena’s most agile melodies to date, less angular in their delivery and thus easier to grasp; you can finally follow these routes as “tunes” now, more than just as intricately crafted “songs” (the aforementioned “The Pelican,” “Rotten Hell,” or “Ghostship” stand out in this way).
Menomena make as much hash out of lyrics as of music—they just want to think about language more than they want to use it. (Their fragmented anecdotes and cryptic phrasings come off like someone who’s read and learned a language but never offered it their tongue—like a character from Shteyngart or Safran Foer, but with far more poetic results than comic.) Their words offer multiple meanings—“I’ve got a stranglehold on this decision.” Okay, stranglehold, that’s an odd way to put it, but then there’s “This analogy only fits when I call you majesty” or “Between the skin and bone is where the West was won.” A ringing begins, and in that clanging, I think Menomena might just offer you aphorisms to claim your own in words you’d never use. ‘Cause who knows just what the fuck else to make from the surface. And really, that’s Menomena, even if perhaps less so now musically than ever: a pummel, a swell, a moment of God, and then it’s time to reclaim your tongue and find your shoes.