By Ian S. Port
By Tony Ware
By Emma Silvers
By Gary Moskowitz
By Alee Karim
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Derek Opperman
"So ... do I get permission to act like a really moody, temperamental artist now?" asks Menomena's Brent Knopf with one of many happy-go-lucky laughs. The amiable singer/guitarist/keyboardist isn't sure how to respond to the fact his Portland, Ore., trio is a Pitchfork darling. The site gave Menomena's engrossing new Friend and Foe a coveted 8.5 rating, the kudos cropping up alongside blogosphere accolades of "buzz band" and "new saviors of indie rock."
"I still wait tables for a living, and we're playing at these fairly tiny venues, so I dunno about all that," he adds.
But if things feel small to Knopf, Menomena's ideas are certainly big. Its artwork, for example, balks at the dying craft of a CD as a physical package: The group's 2003 debut, I Am the Fun Blame Monster!, came with a 64-page flipbook; Friend's die-cut booklet and back insert, meanwhile, both feature intricate drawings by graphic novelist Craig Thompson (of Blankets fame) that tell a different story depending on how the disc is rotated in the case. Fun for hours!
Musically, Friend is also quite ambitious. The instrumentation includes, but is hardly limited to, electric and acoustic guitars that evoke the sounds of tropical islands, midnight campfires, and sheet metal shops; drumming that's organic and jazzy here, heavily processed and hip hop-ish there; piano lines that make you want to weep or do a little jig; plus skronky horns, cabaret accordion, swelling organ, twinkling vibes, and nimble bass lines, all stitched together in songs alternately floaty and forceful. Melodies are established and subverted, tempos and dynamics shift unexpectedly, vocals (which sometimes resemble Damon Albarn's) blend in with and poke out of the mix, all of it to heavenly ends.
"I think I was most interested in pursuing the layering of ideas," says Knopf, whose bandmates are bassist/saxophonist Justin Harris and drummer Danny Seim. "I wanted there to be certain layers that would be strong in and of themselves, ideas that you could almost build a whole 'nother song around, but they're just one layer within one song."
Although many might say it's a nice problem to have, Knopf notes that the trio probably has too many ideas. It's a frustration that he admits has, at various times over the band's seven-year history, caused tension and hard feelings. "To be a responsible musician, you have to make sure the song works, and that means we're always pruning each other's ideas. And that really hurts, to have an idea you really care about and have the other guys remove it. You gotta figure that with three people with equal roles within the band, more often than not you're gonna get overruled and most of your ideas won't see the light of day.
"I think that we all love each other a great deal," he continues, "but we're also working with each other so closely that we're in the position of, like, nobody's taking orders here, and we're all fighting for our ideas as passionately as the next person."
Keeping from killing each other is a neat trick, but an even better one is ensuring Friend's inherent quirkiness doesn't prevent its listener-friendliness. The record comes across as intimate and loveable despite (or because of) its complexities.
"I used to believe in hard-core expression, like, "If you don't understand it, it's your fault,' but I'm not that way anymore," says Knopf. "It's morphed into, not only do I wanna try to express what's inside me, but I wanna make something that is worthwhile to interact with. I'm hoping it'll mean something to someone else. Maybe I'm less of a "true artist' because of that, but that's OK. Pitchfork still loves us, right?"