Revisit: Menomena: Friend and Foe

Revisit: Menomena: Friend and Foe

You’d be forgiven for seeing Menomena as a mildly gimmicky band. Their music is serious, but a lot of the earliest buzz about the band wasn’t always about their music, but rather their delivery system: I Am the Fun Blame Monster!, the band’s debut (the title is an anagram for “The First Menomena Album”), was given to the world both in flip-book form (for the CD version) and in humongous origami monster-face form (for FILMguerrero’s vinyl release), both hand-designed and hand-assembled by the band. Inside that packaging, though, was an infectious and brightly-colored mass of three-piece indie pop made by three of Portland’s best musicians: Brent Knopf, Danny Seim and Justin Harris.

Fun Blame Monster sometimes may be an unfocused album, but it served not only to present an opening statement for Menomena but to exhibit a manic energy combined with a willingness to wander. Menomena sounded like a band that emerged fully-formed. When you start from that place, reinvention becomes unnecessary—after Fun Blame Monster, their best move was to tighten. It took four years for the band to release a proper second album. They released the instrumental Under an Hour, a soundtrack for a production by Portland dance company Monster Squad, in 2005, but this was more of a stopgap on the way to bigger things. In that span, they distilled their craft, boiling down their meanderings into 12 airtight songs, packed to the gills with bright noises and infectious hooks.

A Menomena song gives the impression of actual chaos, like an overly-bored band throwing everything into the mix in the hope that something sticks. They had a reasonably firm grip on managing their chaos by the time Fun Blame Monster came out, and Friend and Foe is a portrait of three hyper-talented musicians who have learned how to make the kitchen-sink aesthetic look like the sounds within were always meant to be cohesive. Let’s take the opener, “Muscle’n Flo,” for example: It starts simply enough, with a series of drum blasts by Seim. After this bash, Harris’ low voice comes in: “Oh in the morning, I stumble, my way towards, the mirror/ And my makeup, its light out, and I now/ Face just what I’m made of,” he sings amid a low thrum. “There’s so much more left to do/ But I’m not young, but I’m not through.” The song doesn’t stay low for long, and before you know it, Harris’s voice has raised, ready to break in moments. When he collides back into “There’s so much more left to do,” it rings as a positive affirmation. All these ebbs and flows within the span a four-and-a-half minute song, in most other band’s hands, would fall apart.

Because there are so many tiny moving parts involved, the band uses a program Knopf designed called Deeler (Digital Looping Recorder) to put all the pieces together as elegantly as possible and manage the madness. “First, we set the tempo of the click, which is played through a pair of headphones,” Knopf would explain in an interview. “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.”

That drive for democratic music-making is a huge piece of what sets this band apart. Specifying anyone as “guitarist” or “drummer” does a disservice to the breadth of work the three members do. As such, none of them are the “head” of the band, even by default—the lines of who is making what noise blur together in such a way that even beginning to label someone as a “frontman” is beside the point. For the sake of fairness, we’ll go alphabetically.

Of the three members of Menomena, Harris presents a baseline with his vocal performances, sitting in the center of Knopf’s boyish voice and Seim’s deep rattle. And as such, he corners the market for belters. After the peaks and valleys of “Muscle’n Flo,” “The Pelican” shows up as a reminder that no two songs are alike. Harris spends just about every moment of this song shouting to match the caterwaul that accompanies him—first just a hammered piano line and then guitar freak-out chaos. Harris’ shout is one of his greatest strengths, giving a frenetic urgency to songs like this one and the impossibly infectious “Weird,” the catchiest song of the bunch here, his own sax stabs punctuating the fuzzed-out synth landscape accompanying him.

Knopf turns in fewer center-stage vocal performances on this album. “Wet and Rusting,” the album’s most restrained track, features Knopf’s honeyed voice carrying the song’s softer edges, as well as delivering the album’s best one-liner: “It’s hard to take risks with a pessimist.” “Wet and Rusting” is a somewhat spare song lyrically, building mostly out of oblique couplets. You’ll also find Seim’s low rumble delivering a single, stark line: “This is the closest I’ll come to touching you the way I want.” (Worth watching is the band’s “Take Away Show” performance featuring the band wandering the city and taking over small courtyards.) Knopf’s strengths lie in his marriage between abstract songwriting and simplicity—he gives you the materials but wants you to paint your own pictures.

Seim’s voice works as a bass-forward undercurrent through many tracks on the album, and his songs are the most bass-heavy to match. He’s also the hardest to pin down lyrically; “Air Aid,” his first shot in the spotlight, is a moody number that is either about suicide (if read straightforwardly) or about the sting of disillusionment within a disgraced America (a theme which feels especially relevant today). Elsewhere, though, he’s less direct, and leans on the repetition that permeated Fun Blame Monster. “Running” sees Seim delivering clipped phrases: “It’s safe to say I’m walking a lot/ It’s safe to say I’m thinner/ It’s safe to say if we don’t find food soon, we won’t make it through winter.” Similarly, the Seim-focused group number “Ghostship” plays a similar trick, giving us just one repeated verse, starting first as only Seim, while picking up the other two members as the subdued song progresses. He’s given the album’s final song as well: “West,” a departure from the restraint present through most of his songs thus far, gives us Seim shouting to be heard over the tumult.

It would be a mistake to talk about Friend and Foe without discussing the one song that features all three members prominently: “Rotten Hell,” the album’s centerpiece. Everyone shines equally here, with Knopf and Seim manning the subdued end of the song, their quiet voices pleading for control: (“I’ve got a stranglehold on this decision/ All those opposed can rot in hell/ In meeting now the words will form a sentence/ You’ll be reduced to nothingness.”) The three meet in the song’s refrain, the album’s battle cry, accompanied by hazy piano noise before the song—and Harris—reach a boiling point: “It’s high time we step outside/ Drop the gloves and settle this like a man/ We might stall and hem and haw/ We might not fight, but we won’t walk away.” It’s not what one might call an optimistic song, but as far as crown jewels go, Friend and Foe couldn’t want for a better one.

The album is also notable for its packaging. Designed by graphic novelist Craig Thompson (of Blankets fame), the artwork here remains one of the strongest cases for physical media’s continued existence. Every inch of the packaging is illustrated in some fashion: cartoonish characters running on treadmills, sawing themselves in half, inhabiting a boundless world that you can stare at for years and still not quite process it all. References to the album’s lyrics abound. This is only half the picture, though: along the album’s right side is a small section allowing you access to a paper wheel that rotates the image behind cut-out sections of the cover, revealing the album’s tracklist and even more grotesque characters in action. This all exists in the album’s CD form, but the LP edition is the most artistic bang-for-your-buck you could ask for.

A band as willing to give into artistic chaos shouldn’t be able to make indie-pop songs as effortlessly as Menomena did with Friend and Foe—and it certainly shouldn’t work, with as much noise as they pack in here. The trio would continue this tightening on their also impeccable 2010 album, Mines, the final record featuring Knopf—a departure foreshadowed by the substantial creative clashes that plagued that album’s recording—it turns out, a circle does sometimes need a center. The band hasn’t released a record since 2012’s Moms, potentially the only weak spot (comparatively speaking) in their catalog. Regardless of what came after, Friend and Foe remains one of the most effortless, infectious and creative indie pop records of the aughts, and it’s a testament to the power of making music with gleefully messy abandon.

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