Menomena finally grows up

"We formed in 2000," Justin Harris says. "Ten years ago this autumn, in fact." Here, his voice takes a sudden leap from its usual unassuming tone. Menomena has come a long way in a decade, it seems to say, even as Harris, opting for humility, doesn't.

The voice is right. Menomena's members took up their Peaveys and Macs in the indie-prog euphoria of the post–Kid A moment. They've since forged a sound unique enough to lend a hint of meaning to their otherwise nonsensical name. The band has gotten around geographically, too. Though its members remain in Portland, Ore., its music has traveled the globe via minivans and interwebs, with The Guardian tipping Menomena's latest album, Mines, as one of the "belated breakouts" of 2010. This is a band on the verge. To understand how it got there, we should parse Harris' near-hiccup once more — "ten years ago this autumn." Contained therein is a moment of recognition and a lifetime piled up over four albums and countless tours.

The band comprises three lifetimes, in fact. Harris, Brent Knopf, and Danny Seim have grown a decade older since Menomena began. For a band made up of stubbornly distinct individuals, this means each member is 10 years more resistant to the others' whims. And for a band as smart as Menomena, it means all three are that much more bored by their own creative process, which famously leans on a piece of software developed by Knopf called Deeler (Digital Looping Recorder). Simply being in Menomena has become a Sisyphean task. It's a wonder the group managed to finish Mines at all, let alone release the album in July, albeit two years behind schedule.

Like all bands, Menomena started in simpler times. Well, maybe not simpler, but definitely different. The trio's bond was formed in Portland's late-'90s Christian rock scene. By their first show as Menomena in July 2001, the band members flexed a Flaming Lips influence. Upon the release of the anagram-flaunting debut I Am the Fun Blame Monster (think about it) in 2003, Menomena was drawing comparisons to the Beta Band and the Unicorns for its determined weirdness. So far, so cult.

"When I listen to those records, I hear our naïveté," Harris says. He has a point. The structural idiosyncrasies and sonic density of Blame Monster and 2007's Friend and Foe hint at a band still fixated on the most superficial aspects of songcraft. There were times when Menomena's music seemed to be made for, by, and about people with attention deficit disorder.

This raises the question: What does the elusive word "Menomena" conjure for listeners in 2010? Visions of a hyperreal John Bonham grooving with Sly and Robbie bassist Robert Shakespeare surface throughout Mines. Having long ago eschewed the glitchy breakbeats of its early albums, the Menomena of today is an immaculately spacious rock band. Something vital has changed. Arrangements are stripped to their essentials with nary a wasted note. The ADD has gone OCD.

But the band's growth goes beyond cosmetic choices such as to glitch or not to glitch. It may even go beyond the band's intentions. Talking to Harris, it's hard to detect such scheming within the band — no earnest late-night discussions concerning its direction, no master plan. If anything, the artful pacing and dynamics of the new songs are a sign that this trio has gotten better at listening — if not to each other, then to their record collections. In its triumph of intelligence over cleverness, Menomena — one of the cleverest bands of them all — has come a long way, indeed.

 
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