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Menomena – Mines

on July 28, 2010, 8:00am

Although it feels like an eternity, it has actually only been three years since Menomena last wowed the music world with their third album, the stellar Friend and Foe. With Friend and Foe, Menomena recorded and produced a thrilling album loaded with instrumentals and vocals so layered and looped that it was impossible to fully comprehend and absorb after one or even 10 listens. It was their best work to date and the album even earned a Grammy nomination for Craig Thompson’s unique cover artwork. Three years later, Friend and Foe has proven to be one of those rare albums that continues to reveal something new after repeated listens and aged like a fine wine. With this week’s release of Mines, the long wait for a new Menomena album is finally over.

For those unfamiliar with Menomena, the creative process behind much of Mines and the albums that came before it is as distinctive as it is perplexing. Using the Digital Looping Recorder, a computer program written by Menomena’s own Brent Knoph, one member improvises a short riff, then the microphone is passed along to the next, and the previous riff is looped while a new one is recorded over it. This method continues with a variety of instruments, vocals enter the mix, and then the Portland trio takes turns constructing and deconstructing songs out of the loops until it becomes a song.

Mines opener “Queen Black Acid” begins as one of the more straight-forward songs on the album. The pulse of an electronic bassline and some more subdued guitar chords create an atmosphere that make the vocals are reminiscent of Damon Albarn at his most longing all the more haunting as they reveal vulnerability and allude to Lewis Carroll. As “Queen Black Acid” goes down the rabbit’s hole, a baritone sax, guitar noise, and the kick of the drum take the song into a more psychedelic direction. As compelling an exploration of the loud-quiet dynamic “Queens” is, for a Menomena song, it is almost deceptively simple.

“TAOS”, the big rocker on Mines, reveals the percussive side of Menomena to be one of their strongest as drums are pummeled into oblivion. Garage rock guitar riffs and horn sections are fully unleashed, and everything noisily comes together for something majestic and completely urging in its grandiosity. The end result is one of the band’s best songs to date. “Dirty Cartoons” is the most sparsely and traditionally arranged songs on Mines but thanks to the magic of Menomena, it is also one of their most affecting. Danny Seim’s voice becomes more aching each time he longs to “go home” throughout “Dirty Cartoons”, until they become a choir of yearning by the end.

“Tithe” is a perfect example of Menomena’s unorthodox approach to recording. It opens with the plink-plonk of a lone xylophone, and after this loop is joined by another xylophone, they race ahead as a grand piano slowly but steadily enters the marathon. The piano continues to build intensity until the xylophone loops are left in the dust, but as it pulls completely head of the xylophones, the new challenger of a guitar riff emerges. Grand piano proves triumphant as the guitar loop soon temporarily runs out of steam and is replaced by the introduction of vocals.  All this occurs before the two-minute mark, and the next three minutes contain even more layers of instruments all building up to something magnificent.

Mines benefits considerably from this eccentric musical method, especially on the unfortunately titled “Oh Pretty Boy, You’re Such a Big Boy”. The tension built by an infectious bassline, dueling saxophone and drum loops, and eventually a from-left-field piano riff gets some release as the vocals soar with “all my love was in one place ‘til I, I let it escape” and the music intensifies until abruptly screeching to a halt at the end. Menomena closes Mines with the piano ballad “INTIL”, a gorgeously emotive finale that brings to mind the album closers of Radiohead, especially “Videotape”. After a brief moment of silence, an outro consisting of frantic but faint piano and a barely audible moan brings one of the best albums of the year to a close.

Like I Am the Fun Blame Monster and Friend and Foe before it, Mines reveals its secrets over time. With their innovative approach to writing, recording, and producing music, Menomena proves that experimental and accessible need not be mutually exclusive. Despite its unconventional nature, Mines never comes across as self-indulgent or being weird for weirdness’ sake and any quirkiness is never forced. With its lyrical themes of self-doubt, loss, and aging coupled with layer upon layer of rich textures and melodies, headphones should be mandatory when listening to Mines.

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