Portland, Oregon trio Menomena take a lot of disjointed loops and tear them apart, spin them round and reconstruct them. It’s a bit of musical puff-puff-pass, with each band member contributing something and feeding the data into a band-built looping computer program. Sounds alarmingly avant garde, right? And perhaps it is, in theory, but Menomena come across as surprisingly accessible and pop-oriented, even in the midst of all their computerised hyperactivity.
Mines, the long-awaited product of a rocky three years of silence, finds the band picking up where 2007’s Friend And Foe left off in a lot of ways. But Mines stands on its own apart from its near-classic predecessor. Here, Menomena have managed something altogether remarkable: They’ve created an organic album of wide spaces and varied orchestration with almost no ghost-trail to lead back to their experimental creative process.
Indeed, Mines sounds very much like the result of intensely meticulous, carefully collaborative songwriting, if a bit schizophrenic in its direction. But here, apparent lack of focus lends to the album’s sense of collaboration, and its overall wideness of scope. Menomena are avant garde the same way TV On The Radio or Modest Mouse are avant garde; the music is truest when experimentalism gives way to deeply affecting musicality and an impeccable sense of melody. And on Mines, Menomena sound truer than they have before.
Queen Black Acid opens Mines with a subdued clean guitar and a bass-drum quality that would make John Bonham proud. “I get so caught up in my ways, sometimes I forget the simple plains,” is the lyric that opens the album, and it’s a fitting thesis for what follows. In this case, Menomena’s “ways” are their experimental recording process, but amid all the loops and sonic distraction (often in the form of horns, strings, glockenspiel, and auxiliary percussion), simplicity shines through, the way it should in a good pop record.
Lead single, TAOS rocks harder than anything else here, with angular near-grunge guitar riffing and explosive drumming, broken by the occasional pocket symphony, and eventually stabbed by a horn section that sounds ripped from a lost Stax 45.
Dirty Cartoons stands out for its earnest lyricism, which focuses on attempts to “go home,” and its fantastically disjointed percussion. Here background vocals are applied to excellent effect, and a baritone saxophone sounds unexpectedly in the open spaces. Tithe features a xylophone-piano-guitar interplay that shouldn’t work, but does work beautifully despite itself.
Oh Pretty Boy, You’re Such A Big Boy centres lyrically on fear of showing one’s age, and the confession that “your love, oh my love, is just not enough.” The left-hand piano run plinks menacingly, cementing the foundation for an Alan Parsons Project synthesized freakout. Mines closes with Intil, an emotional and dramatic piano ballad, closing the whole thing in grand style. It’s a song about the dissolution of a relationship (“I never thought I’d lie, but you don’t want to know”), but here Menomena have struck an archetypal balance; this one could be about you or anyone.
Despite its experimental genesis, Mines is an incredibly relatable indie-pop gem. All the hummingbird hyperactivity of its creation has been spread around the soundfield, lending the album’s straightforward songcraft an air of distinct importance and impossible gravity. Mines hides innumerable secrets in its layers, and it rewards both casual and obsessive revisiting.