I first heard Menomena in…well, looks like that happened on August of 2012, but I actually pulled it from PDX Pop Now!’s 2010 compilation. The specific song was “Five Little Rooms.” I have been listening to that same song, often late at night and sufficiently loose (or tight…still struggling with which way to go there), since then, trying to decipher its meaning. I’m no Charlie Manson, some clown sifting the sound and lyrics for instructions on how to bring about Racist Doomsday (true story). Still, everything about that song – the drums pounding as if on the walls of those rooms, and vaguely funereal sound of the piano, the soaring buzz of the guitars toward the end, the mocking chorus – somehow recalls sensations of panic. Or, as one part of the lyrics puts it, “Click your heels and get the hell away.” Look, it sounds much more artful in the song...
We’re all familiar with the record store routine, the act of walking in there with a head full of ideas about what to buy, only to have every last idea leak out one aisle to the next, each successive band’s name taking you further and further from those original thoughts. When music collecting went mostly online, I stopped going to record stores – probably due to the above, too – but the day I finally did go, though, Menomena stayed front and center until I walked it to the register. “Five Little Rooms” had everything to do with that.
The above might reek of obsessive fandom, but, until this week, I’ve never quite pored over Menomena’s albums; and it’s rare that I pull a song apart like I did (and do) with “Five Little Rooms.” It’s not my style, for one (see: this entire goddamn project), but there’s also no world in which Menomena makes for easy listening. It’s not even that they don’t do infectious beats and addictive hooks – though they don’t do them much. Menomena is a study of details, the process of trying to catch and piece out the way they construct each song. They’re a band built not just for volume, but for the era of earbuds; listening to them almost requires sound-blocking, because it’s too easy miss an instrument, or some accent, or fail to note how, in one song, they built one bridge on a choppily pulsing saxophone, and the next bridge by plucking twinkles out of strings (see: “Weird”). That one also has one of my favorite lyrical phrases: “There’s no love lost that I can’t find again.” (Damn it! Typing that in plain text strangles the lyrics. Delivery matters. The way one communicates a thought or a feeling will always change it. Obviously.)
It feels right to tackle Menomena from the angle of approach, because it’s a big part of their sound. It starts with their songwriting process, something covered on the band’s Wikipedia page:
"First, we set the tempo of the click, which is played through a pair of headphones. We then take turns passing a single mic around the room. One of us will hold the mic in front of an instrument, while another one of us will lay down a short improvised riff over the click track. We usually start with the drums. Once the drums begin looping, we throw on some bass, piano, guitar, bells, sax, or whatever other sort of noisemaker happens to be in the room. Deeler keeps the process democratic, which is the only way we can operate."
Also worth noting: they compose their songs slowly and, apparently, over email. It takes them a while, too, and maybe that painstaking process lands on something about them: they don’t write bad songs. No “I Was Made for Loving You, Baby,” for these guys. Don’t get me wrong: their songs aren’t my children, perfect little things I’m obliged to love equally, because I don’t. When I say they don’t write bad songs, I mean there’s nothing cheap in their music, nothing easy. It’s possible that oversimplifies things, because it’s not like the band has to reinvent the wheel every time they record: Menomena has a sound, something their fans (like me) respond to, and, because there’s so much in what they do, they can keep mining that massive goddamn vein till they die and compulsive twits like me will keep coming back to pull apart the puzzle so we can see how this one fits together.
For all the parts that comprise most Menomena songs, their particular genius comes with their talent for giving each of those parts space to breathe and be heard. Again, so long as one listens with earbuds; try this in a car, and you’re fucked, you’ll miss half of it at a minimum. Some of it comes by way of contrasts so vivid you can’t miss them: a heavy, rhythmic baseline thudding at the floor, while a piano twinkles in all the open space above it (again, God bless the piano). No less often, they seem to dial back every other sound in order to let the element they want step the foreground. The band hauls the guts of what they’re doing front and center, basically, sort of like one of those old see-through anatomy statuettes: the listener only has to pay attention to hear with decent clarity how the component parts fit together to make the sound.
Insofar as Menomena has a sound, they also possess the talent, precision and boldness to excavate every last possibility within that sound. And, as most of your better bands, they pulled their sound to slightly different ground as they need to in order to expand it. Like most acts these days, their oeuvre gets a little sloppy between remixes and remastered editions, but I relied on four albums to produce this post: I Am the Fun Blame Monsters! (2003; also, anagram, or whatever the fuck those things are called), Friend And Foe (2007), Mines (2010), and Moms (2012). The progression from beginning to end isn’t so rare – e.g., Blame Monster’s sounds spare and experimental next to Moms’ tidied up and, frankly, lighter, cleaner sound – and that’s not an insult for once. It’s the opposite, actually; Moms might be my favorite. The close second? Friend And Foe. Or vice versa. It’s close.
To make a distinction, Friend And Foe feels like an anchor for Menomena’s “sound”: they're as broad musically on that album as they feel anywhere, but there’s more assurance in the music than on Blame Monster. Moms, meanwhile, shows what they can do in the same space when they want to, for lack of a better word, have fun. There’s something I picked up in music theory video that I can’t stop hearing when I listen to Moms, even if someone could tell me I’m 100% full of shit on a closer listen: the brighter notes on that album makes me wonder if the band didn’t just switch to major chords for that one. But listen to “Plumage” and “Skintercourse” next to, say, “Muscle’n Flo” and “Running” and tell me the former isn’t lighter. And poppier. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Every Menomena album has enough to 1) fan-crush over and 2) pull apart that I could go on for four more pages (one for each album; oh yeah!). Because I like everything, basically, I don’t know where to start except to talk about everything. Rather than lard up the rest of this post with links to Youtube videos of uneven quality, instead I’m going to close out this post by listing all the songs that I’ll be posting to a Spotify playlist (yes, another one) and posting to twitter. There are a couple things I want to touch on before that, though.
First, I want to return to the idea about not loving all Menomena songs equally. I spent today (at work; built-in limitation) specifically listening for songs I liked well enough, but not a lot, never mind loved. I only got all the way through two albums – Blame Monster and Friend And Foe…the latter of which, it feels relevant to point out, might be my favorite. Even so, I pulled out “Boyscout’n” and “Running” as two songs that sort of fell short; the latter feels a little like parody. Blame Monster (A & B sides) has more: “Strongest Man in the World,” “Shirt” (which, per my notes, “all the elements, just a little flatter”), “Nebali”, and “Monkey’s Back” (but even that wandering mess has a heavy middle section that blows my damn mind). When I listened to Mines later, I found a couple more that leave me flat - “BOTE” and “Oh, Pretty Boy, You’re Such a Big Boy” – so it’s not like they’re batting 1.000. Though, for me, their average clearly floats on the high end. (Guys! It's, like, .750!)
The second point gets at something central to what I love about Menomena. Disappointment, alienation and generally picking at the protective devices that scab over raw emotional truth are some favorite themes. And, to be clear, I love that stuff. It is my fucking jam. I savor songs that push on raw nerves in the same way I spend all day pushing on an aching tooth and for exactly the same reason. Even if I can’t wrap my thoughts around every piece of why that feels like life’s realest pleasure, that’s a lot of what I’m listening for in lyrics: some version of truth.
And, that’s enough for this one. Below are the 20 (edit; see below) songs that I either love or that I feel best represent them as a band. My guess is that those two sentiments cross over, and multiple times. At any rate, the songs are below and the playlist is on Spotify, and with a link on my twitter feed.
Menomena – Conifers & Citrus Top 20…fuck it, 23 Playlist
3. E. Is Stable
4. Trigga Hiccups
5. Muscle’n Flo
6. The Pelican
8. Rotten Hell
9. Evil Bee
11. Air Raid
12. My My
16. Heave Is as Heavy Does
20. Dirty Cartoons
21. Five Little Rooms (duh)
22. Baton23. The Late Grate Libido