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Menomena - Mines

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Artist: Menomena

Album: Mines

Label: Barsuk

Review date: Sep. 10, 2010

Brent Knopf of Menomena wrote the programming for the Digital Looping Recorder, or Deeler, that the band uses to compose it songs shortly after graduating from Dartmouth. According to the band’s website, Menomena’s brainy, technologically-enabled pop starts with a single loop, usually drums. Band members — Knopf, plus bassist/multi-instrumentalist Justin Harris, and drummer Danny Seim — then pass the mic, each contributing instrumentals or voice in turn. Meant to be collaborative and improvisational, the process also sounds like it could easily turn chaotic and over-busy. It’s not difficult to imagine sessions where the band kept adding “one more thing” until the whole enterprise sank under its own weight. But it’s also the kind of thing that you would get a handle on over time, which may explain why this third album, Mines, feels considerably smoother, sleeker and more premeditated than usual. There were always songs hidden in the mesh of conflicting rhythms. This time, they seem more obviously melodic, less manically crowded, fluid even, though certainly not predictable or clichéd.

Not that Mines songs are exactly simple. As usual, band members pile multiple textures onto one another in baroque, overpopulated juxtapositions. They make sudden changes in texture and mood. “Killemall,” for instance, starts in a classics-leaning piano solo, picks up a rush of maracas and pounded drums, then adds distempered horns. The intro screams “drama!” and it’s just about to tip into excess when the band cuts way back, eliminating everything but bass and vocals for a creepy, ominous kind of vulnerability. “Have you met your ghost,” asks the singer, “He says things that you won’t.” The piece teeters between overstuffed and undernourished for most of its five-minute duration, yet seems, miraculously, to remain itself. On past Menomena albums, you might find three or four distinct songs crammed into one track. The songs on Mines align multiple ideas much more effectively.

The best songs here bristle with nervous energy, bursting out of off-kilter rhythms with caffeinated exuberance. “TAOS,” one of the album’s high points, considers brainiacs in lust, the singer admitting that “underneath this fleshy robe, lies a beast with no control” amid staccato shouts, clattering drums and florid, arrangements of romantic piano and strings. “BOTE” runs amok on slithery bass and fractious, clattery drumming, though never off the tracks, its relentless forward motion breaking, mid-cut, for a jazzy piano interlude.

Mines is so complex and well-integrated, that it’s hard to imagine Menomena creating this album on the fly, instrument by instrument, with or without the help of their proprietary Deeler. Lyrics, especially, seem too well-thought-out to be freestyled, as for instance, on the intricately constructed, baritone sax-funked “Five Little Rooms” where the opening salvo runs, “This is a play / that takes place in a freezer / count your blessings / it’s far removed / from your group of peers / from your circle.”

But regardless of how much — or little — advanced planning went into these songs, they sound way more unified than previous Menomena efforts. There’s still a lot of the band’s patented spazzy energy, its penchant for disparate parts and sudden shifts, but it all fits together better this time.

By Jennifer Kelly

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