How does Brent Knopf, one of the Portland group’s three singer/multi-instrumentalists, feel about his album being held over until it’s ripe for eBay? “[Early on], that was the goal,” he says while roaming a Japanese garden in his hometown. “We realize that the music’s not worth listening to, but the packaging will hopefully be worth keeping.”
Friend and Foe, Menomena’s new Barsuk Records debut, continues the tradition of elaborate cover art—with hidden messages, decoder rings, die-cut shapes—that can be arranged to suit the listener’s visual tastes. Designed by cult graphic novelist Craig Thompson (Blankets), it’s also ripe for online auctions … if it wasn’t so good.
Explaining Friend and Foe’s worth—and what it sounds like—is difficult, almost as complex as its artwork. Knopf and bandmates Justin Harris and Danny Seim don’t even try anymore. It’s not that they’re overly precious, describing their music as both organic and intelligently designed—like bonsai trees in a Japanese garden, if you will. It’s just tough and, frankly, complicated. They’ve explained themselves countless times and, in a statement issued through Barsuk, they’ve implied they’d rather leave it at this:
Most Menomena songs are the mutant result of what we call “Deeler Sessions.” Deeler is a computer program that Brent wrote in Max/MSP that is basically a glorified guitar-loop pedal. The result of a Deeler Session is a bunch of loop .aiff files that work together in some way. Later these loop files are often arranged into Menomena songs, with vocals usually added later in the process, and instrumental parts often being re-recorded. This explains why most of our songs are loop-based.
So technical, so boring—but it gets us closer to answering the hot question long ago posed by crusty, crotchety Muppet philosophers/hecklers Statler and Waldorf. Following a Muppet Show rendition of Piero Umiliani’s softcore porn hit “Mah Nà Mah Nà,” Statler asks his life partner, “The question is, what is a Menomena?”
Are they the result of an intersection between technology and right-brain function? The crossroads where artificial intelligence hovercraft and soul trains exchange insurance information? Hell, I don’t know. Probably not. The urge to say it’s just good festers alongside the catch-all critical handicap: a pop-culture reference equation. Perhaps something in a: Menomena = (Pink Floyd Can Steely Dan) / Kindercore laptop (Freemasonry x Art Bell) x (indie2 – math rock)?
Alas, as usual, it gets us close to nowhere and makes the head hurt. Here’s givin’ description a whirl.
Apropos of nothing and everything, Menomena uses instruments and machines to paint in broad strokes the image of a tapestry woven of musical threads started at various points in the last half-century. They frame it and, with a nail gun, affix an engraved plaque bearing the title: “Music: 1957–2007, Onward.”
In other words, their sound siphons from and references a dizzying selection of genres. One moment “Muscle’n Flo” melds indie yelps to quasi-break beats and fractured pedal-steel guitar. “Rotten Hell” distills Mark Mallman’s tip-jar-and-pill-bottle piano with some of Harold Budd’s beautiful, lecherous tinkling on La Bella Vista into atmospheric absinthe as gorgeous and trance-inducing as My Morning Jacket interpreting Neil Young’s Harvest. “The Pelican” takes the clattering cash-register funk of Pink Floyd’s “Money” to Philip K. Dick’s house for free-associations, cold sweats and intermittent expressions of anxiety and paranoia. On “Wet and Rusting,” clipped acoustic strumming, hallucinatory dings and disembodied vocals deliver a hot-stone massage for the ears.
Stranger still is how these distillations fluctuate within each song. There are copious side trips, from sparse four-note interludes to shit that sounds like Phillip Glass and Trent Reznor holding hands in Narnia. Opening the Menomena Russian nesting doll just exposes more weird little Weebles. Searching for explanations or attempting to divine a methodology or uncover blueprints takes the fun out of it.
“We’re very peculiar and very normal at the same time,” Knopf says, conceding Menomena’s inexplicability. Perhaps Muppet Waldorf’s rhetorical response to his partner’s query is the only accurate explanation. Turning to his partner, the jowly, Wilford Brimley-esque Medicare Muppet cracks, “The question is, who cares?”
MENOMENA @ Kilby Court, 741 S. 330 West, Saturday Oct. 27, 7:30 p.m. 24Tix.com