Top 25 Favorite Albums of 2010 | #21. Menomena – Mines

#21. Menomena – Mines

Brent Knopf writes beautiful music.  Anyone who heard the 2009 debut album Intuit from his side project, Ramona Falls, would likely vouch for that fact.  It is often lush, dense, with a marked emotional complexity that always seems politely confined to its very limit, never boiling over.  Melodically, he isn’t always obvious, but remains consistently engaging, and his lyrics, while at times cryptic, carve a tone that never fails to fall in step with the sonic textures of its surroundings.

The final track on Menomena’s third LP (not counting Under An Hour, the band’s score for a modern dance performance… sorry), Mines,  is the melancholy “INIT”, one of only three songs on the album lead by Knopf.  The song’s opening piano chords are soft, deliberate quarter-note pulses ringing into the room.  Knopf confesses with a portioned, trickling vocal melody:  “I never thought I’d lie \ but you don’t wanna know \ so now there’s a divide \ though we used to be close \ in order to be nice \ I’ll only show you half \ the rest I gotta hide \ cause you don’t understand”.

This past Friday, Menomena announced that Knopf was leaving the band to focus on Ramona Falls as his full-time endeavor.

Now, I’m not really alluding to the obvious here. I’m not at all suggesting we assume or even speculate that “INIT” is Knopf’s farewell address to the band – it’s likely not.  Let’s be honest, it’s probably about a girl.  But what does strike a very particular chord is how bittersweet the song, and for that matter, all of Knopf’s songs, sound in the wake of his departure. Mines is a rather stirring, impassioned record on a whole, so it’s not that the other eight songs split between bassist/guitarist/saxophonist Justin Harris and drummer Danny Seim are especially cheery and upbeat in contrast.  It’s just that we are now afforded the (unfortunate) opportunity to look back at what precisely the band is losing in Knopf, and it strikes me that he almostsounds kind of sad about it.

It is also worth noting that Knopf’s lead roles appear diminished on Mines, in comparison to Harris and Seim, but on closer inspection it’s not as extreme as it seems. The other two members each sing on four songs, compared to Knopf’s three, but the fact that two of his songs (the aforementioned “INIT” and “Sleeping Beauty”) close the record out, does tend to make him appear… overshadowed.  And to be honest, he kind of is, but not insomuch as he isn’t a primary lead singer – rather, “Sleeping Beauty” and his third song (also the third track) “Killemall”, just don’t stand up to the offerings from Harris and Seim.  That said, Ramona Falls serves a peculiar role in the equation, as it allows us to hear how much Knopf brings to the table beyond simply singing lead on the occasional song.  Inuit sounds a lot like Menomena – the arrangement, the drum sound, the overall production aesthetic – the touchstones are all there.  And let us not forget that it was Knopf who crafted the oft-discussed (and belabored, if you ask me) recording and looping software that Menomena uses for writing as a band.  So maybe it’s not Knopf’s quality of songwriting that dwindles on Mines (and we could fairly assume that he was withholding some material for Ramona Falls at this point, as well), but rather his contributions to the band’s sound.  Sure, Harris and Seim do a damned good job of singing a song and, presumably, crafting a vocal melody.  And of course, they’re both well-documented impresarios at their various instruments.  But what of the void that Knopf will leave in Menomena’s musical identity?  Will Ramona Falls end up being a veritable document of the musical piece that left with Knopf?

Who knows, honestly.  And really, who should care?  I mean, look at it this way:  You already had three guys who, although collaborating musically, were taking turns as frontman, and you already have three full-length releases as results of that formula.  Now, you get a chance to hear one of them runaway, untethered, and the other two move on (while folding in Joe Haege of 31Knots and Tu Fawning, who had been touring with the band) to new territories.  This should be kind of exciting, in the sense that the Menomena fanbase now gets what essentially amounts to twice as much music, all of which is almost guaranteed to be a departure, or at the very least, a noticeable evolution.  Because really, who wants to hear a band make the same old record again and again?

Speaking of which, Mines is damn good record.  Did I mention that yet?  Menomena have a knack for taking what should otherwise be solid, yet fairly simplistic songs with a sort of “everyman” vocal persona and planting it firmly in a sonic wilderness, weaving songs through a studio forest, ripe with limb-cracking snare drums, timber-falling kicks, lush, earthy keyboards and deep, guttural saxophone moans.  On album opener “Queen Black Acid”, Harris touches on his regrettable foolishness with a destructive relationship: “I walked right in through the rabbit’s door \ and walked right into the rabbit’s hole \ I made myself an open book \ I made myself a sitting duck”.  The song swells and swims in the stereo field, and you can almost feel a little lost in it, making yourself vulnerable for what Menomena has in store for you next.  That would be “TAOS”, a totally unexpected rocker that displays Harris in a much different light, belting in a voice somewhere between Jack White and Caleb Followill in measured boasts: “Oh I’ll bet I know what you like \ at least think I know what you might \ I’m not the most cocksure guy \ but I get all bold with every smile”.

Seim takes his first turn in the spotlight two songs later in the fantastic “Dirty Cartoons”.  Lyrically, the song may tread on the cliché side of things (yes, another song about “going home”), but it more than makes up for it with musical import and production bombast. By the climax, the band can do no wrong, nestled perfectly in the heart-string pocket.  Seim hangs onto the mic for “Tithe”, which twinkles instrumentally for the first half before he opens his mouth, painting a stark visual: “Spending the best years of a childhood horizontal on the floor \ like a bobsled minus the teamwork and the televised support”.  The songs builds toward the end much like “Cartoons”, and achieves similar effect.  Elsewhere, Harris evokes Spiritualized’s J. Spaceman on the cooled-out “Oh Pretty Boy, You’re Such A Big Boy”, and Heim returns to lead the band in the lurching ear-candy of “Five Little Rooms”, hauntingly intoning: “All this could be yours… someday.”  It’s epic and spooky, and from the sound of it, I don’t want it to be mine. At all.

So what does the future hold for Menomena, now that the three-headed beast has lost a noggin?  Only time will tell, obviously, but I don’t find myself worrying.  For one, if Harris and Seim (and I suppose, to be fair, Haege) were to close up shop tomorrow, the band would have left behind a very solid and beyond respectable discography.  But I’m more inclined to think that the band will likely set a new course and further explore the more emphatic musical approach that Harris and Seim seem to favor, which I, for one, would welcome.  After all, as much as I love what Knopf has done with Ramona Falls, if you made me choose, I would rather have my favorite Menomena tracks…  and those just so happen to be the ones with Harris and Seim at the helm.

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