June 2, 2010

Secular Parables: An Early Review of Menomena's MINES (part 1)

Click here for a track-by-track review of Mines.

Menomena's third (technically fourth) album, Mines, is probably my most anticipated album of the year. It leaked last Thursday and I've set myself the task of reviewing it long before any official sentiment spreads. The band hails from Portland, Oregon and have been a fixture on my blog since I first heard Friend and Foe back in 2007. I loved that record.

A few general things we can say about the album as a whole. The drumming is absolutely bombastic and continues to be one of Menomena's greatest strengths; the lyrics are never straightforward or dull; each song is unapologetically grand, even with the simplest musical ingredients. All the songs on Mines are potentially explosive, even volatile; and it can make for an album that's difficult to navigate. The first time listening through, I simply didn't know how to maneuver through some of these tracks. And I'm still guessing.

Menomena records are always constructed very deliberately. With song composition, its become their trademark to treat each instrument as an ingredient appears and disappears from the mix continuously. Rarely do we get everything all at once; and, indeed, that's one reason I find Menomena so engaging. They know how to show restraint and they use it to their advantage. That said, each musical ingredient is recognizable and quite distinct. Rarely do the piano, the baritone saxophone, the drums, or the guitar and vocals get lost in the mix. What we're left with is a collection of songs that never settle down. This is more or less how Friend and Foe functioned; Mines only ups the ante.

During our first listen, my friends and I came up with a theory that this album constituted by parodies of alternative rock cliches from the 90s; it unfolds like some epic battle between artistic ingenuity and the most sentimental rock music. Another theory that quickly developed among the group was that this was essentially the best (and perhaps the most self-conscious) "praise and worship" album ever recorded. As with Friend and Foe, it's heavy on religious imagery, but Mines doesn't skimp on the sort of "inspiring" melodies common to most "praise and worship" songs. It's also got moments of gospel-style delivery and more than once employs the sort of transcendent chorus that bands like U2 are know for. Menomena effectively deconstruct all of this. The songs on Mines are, at times goofy and irreverent, but Menomena never flinches. I won't be surprised if this album doesn't get a very positive reception, but one thing is certain: this is music only Menomena could make; and it is surely an impressive feat. In fact may be the strangest (and most intriguing) rock album of the year.

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