It’s been longer than usual between updates, and that’s because I was off in Portland getting married and then off near Crater Lake having a honeymoon. If you meet some middle-aged dudes who try to crack wise about how marriage is a slow descent into never watching football or having sex again, don’t believe them. Those jokes are just Old Dude Language for, “I truly love my wife but, like many men of my generation, I am conditioned to never once display emotions other than anger, usually directed at referees and fellow drivers.” Weddings are awesome, honeymoons are awesome, and I’m secure enough in my masculinity to say that. If you think marriage is a prison you either 1) married badly the first time or, if you’ve never married, 2) had shitty parents. Just guessing.
Now let’s talk about some fucking music! I reread Never Mind the Pollacks while honeymooning and, if you haven’t read it, shame on you. It’s hilarious, both a literary parody and anthem, and it sums up my attitude about music and music criticism pretty succinctly. That’s not what this review (you probably guessed by the title of the post) is about, but I thought I’d share. Read Never Mind the Pollacks by Neal Pollack.
As a once and future Northwest resident, it always gives me a special brand of pleasure when I have occasion to heap praise upon a band from Portland or Seattle or some points in between. Portland has a particularly warm place in my heart because I grew up in its suburbs and it has more good beer per capita than any other city I’ve visited (this is where you disagree with me and tell me other cities with great beer so I can plan a vacation of ales and porters and stouts oh my). And I know Portland’s becoming more hip than it’s ever been, but the music that comes out of Portland is often deserving of the hype. Portland has given us not just your well(ish)-known Decemberists and M. Ward (and therefore half of She & Him) but also the Thermals, Laura Veirs, Ramona Falls, and Menomena. Of course, Brent Knopf is a common denominator between the latter two bands, but they are both excellent in their own right.
Ramona Falls, of course, released Intuit in 2009 (probably one of the most underrated albums of last year) and put in some time opening for the National, providing me with the best opening band experience I’ve had since I saw the National and Modest Mouse open for R.E.M. back in 2008. Where Menomena’s last album, 2007’s Friend and Foe, was a fairly even mixture of crazy noise and beautiful melodies, the Ramona Falls record erred (if you can call it that) more often than not on the side of loveliness. And on Menomena’s brand-spanking-new Mines, it seems easy to identify a Ramona Falls Effect, if you’re feeling lazy. Mines is Menomena’s most beautiful album to date and the band’s finest hour (not, obviously, to diminish Friend and Foe, which was a great record). It’s not that Knopf sings any more than usual, it’s just that all of Mines has that sort of glowing, subtle vibe to it that really does put it up there near the National’s High Violet or TV On the Radio’s Dear Science in terms of excellence.
On Friend & Foe, Menomena frequently used their dense instrumentation as a sort of subtle antagonist to the songs’ airy melodies, attacking your ear with a well-placed horn or the bleat of a baritone sax. The trio still wields a full arsenal of instruments (I’m sick of reading about how Menomena records, by the way, and I’m not going to write about it. It’s cool and all, but I don’t care. If they made all this noise with their butt cheeks, an industrial fan, and a hamster in a microwave, I still wouldn’t give a shit. I care how the music sounds. Period) but everything feels more subtle on Mines, each song building to a crescendo and then breaking the tension in a gorgeous wash of melody (see opener “Queen Black Acid”, “Dirty Cartoons”, and “Tithe” for examples of this. Oh, and every other song on the album).
The thing is, the technical ins and outs of their recording style are secondary to the fact that Menomena has gotten really good at making beautiful songs as a band. Mines is a considerable step up from Friend and Foe, which was already an excellent record. It’s busy without feeling overstuffed (I know some people will disagree with that assessment, but I think it depends on how much instrumental density you’re willing to tolerate. I’m willing to tolerate a lot of it if the songs are good), with guitars and vocal harmonies swirling in and around each other, creating a wide and pleasing variety of textures.
I saw a cooking show the other day where the chefs all compete to see who can make the best dish and there was this pretty cool old guy who made some kind of Jamaican style chicken (or game hen or some kind of bird. I don’t really remember). The judges all loved it, but one was really surprised. Seeing the sheer number of ingredients the chef used, this judge was sure the dish would suck. Like this awesome chef (who won the competition, by the way), Menomena can use a positively frightful list of musical ingredients. But who cares? At the end of the day, the quality of the product matters more than the quantity of its parts. This is why I never give a shit when people tell me about some intriguing technical aspect of a band’s recording process. I don’t care if they have the only synthesizer made completely from panda bones and the foreskins of major 20th century literary figures, I care if they write good songs (or, to quote Patton Oswalt, “I don’t care where the things I love come from. I just love the things I love!”). All technical hoohah aside, Mines is a marvel of composition and craft, but it never feels like anything other than a magnificent rock record, one of a handful of truly stunning albums I’ve heard this year.