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Menomena - Friend and Foe

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Artist: Menomena

Album: Friend and Foe

Label: Barsuk

Review date: Mar. 2, 2007

Experimental pop is a bit of a contradiction in terms. Pop is, by its nature, a unitary sort of art, full of two- and three-minute verse/chorus songs that are so integrated and self-sufficient that you simply cannot think of them in terms of their components. Experiments, by contrast, are all about breaking the rules, slapping things together, blowing up complacencies. So when you hear a band described as "experimental pop," as Menomena often is, you have to wonder which side will win out - the pop or the experiment? Putting the two together in equal measure ought to be like tossing a half cup of baking soda into a bottle of vinegar, good for a satisfying bang and a big mess, but not much more.

With Friend and Foe you get the bang and the mess...but also a hell of a lot more. There's a sort of magic in the way this Portland threesome balances structure and chaos, pop and noise. Like TV on the Radio, whom they resemble a good deal, they've managed to make a record that challenges and comforts at the same time. Friend and Foe sounds like pop songs put through a blender for a few seconds, great slippery chunks of melody whacked to varying sized bits and discontinuously abutting outsized drum beats, brash piano chords and ska-town squawks of saxophone. There are moments of achingly pure pop that float up out of the chaos, tantalize briefly, then slip back into the mix.

This is Menomena's second real album (though between I Am A Fun Blame Monster and this one, they did record a three-song instrumental CD called Under an Hour to accompany an indie film). With it, they seem to have substantially upped the chaos factor; whereas songs like "The Late Great Libido" off the last album were eccentric pop, new cuts have a sharper rhythmic edge. There's an off-kilter swagger to stop-start "Pelican." It seesaws precariously between two chords, first on piano, then on guitars, a drunken soldier's march that somehow morphs into the headiest sort of harmonized euphoria. The combination of out-of-scale rhythms and jittery, swollen doo-wop choruses may remind you strongly of TVOTR's first EP, and the cut brings the same sort of out-of-body exuberance as "Staring at the Sun." "Weird" also sounds quite TVOTR-ish, with its deep-vibrating synth tones and feather-light, funk-soul drumming. It's one of the cuts where Justin Harris substitutes saxophone for bass, its low, bleating urgency pushing the track forward.

Occasionally Menomena's daring gets the better of them. The Bridge of the River Kwai whistling in "Boyscoutin'" doesn't quite transcend its silliness, and the closer "West," is too many songs glopped carelessly together. But set against these minor errors is the undeniable achievement of "Evil Bee," emerging out of the darkness with its shuffling cymbal beat and almost subliminal bass. The vocal line snakes in and out of changing instrumentals, now dense with guitars, now cut back to only piano notes, now bristling with saxophone.

Here, the line "Oh to be a machine, oh to be wanted, to be useful" has a chilly, gleaming melancholy, a drama that is all out of proportion with anything that's come this far. The line itself could be from a pop song, as simple and emotionally affective as any from the Beatles. The fact that it's surrounded by clanking, asymmetrical complexity, the pop and the experimental halves perfectly in balance, is harder than it looks and more remarkable for it.

By Jennifer Kelly

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I Am The Fun Blame Monster


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