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Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2007 01:21 pm

Expect the unusual

Hard-to-categorize Menomena catches fans off guard with latest release

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Menomena Friend and Foe (Barsuk Records)
Untitled Document Menomena isn’t easily pigeonholed. The Portland, Ore.-based experimental trio doesn’t fit easily into any particular genre; it’s much too complex for that. At first glance, the band’s setup seems simple enough — guitar, drums, piano — but then such instruments as the baritone sax and what sounds like a large set of keys, dangled in front of the mic, are introduced. And yet, through all this syrupy, slow, post-rock instrumentation, a sharp pop element triumphs on Friend and Foe, their latest album. Fans have come to expect the unusual from these Barsuk Records underdogs, who released their second album, Under an Hour, a three-movement instrumental record that was originally used for a modern-dance performance, as a follow-up to well-received debut I Am the Fun Blame Monster! But, with Friend and Foe, Menomena really catches their fans off guard with an accessible and inventive record.
The new album evokes the melodies of pop enthusiast Brian Wilson but with less elaborateness than his solo effort Smile. Menomena’s prior releases have mainly attracted buzz for their talented musicianship, but, on Friend and Foe, the band members show that songcraft is one their accomplishments as well.
The opening track, “Muscle ’N Flo,” begins with heavy drums and a melodic coo leading into a singalong chorus whose vocal imperfections charm rather than annoy  a tack taken by some of the band’s contemporaries, including Wolf Parade and TV on the Radio. It’s the most accessible track on the album, but it maintains the innovative posture the band is known for. Each song employs different concepts, but each musical idea works, evidence of the band’s talent and growth as songwriters. Friend and Foe’s third track, Wet and Rusting,” is a soft, harmonious piece that begins with a gentle piano line, followed by a strumming acoustic guitar. In the candid yet ironic chorus, the group sings, “It’s hard to take risks.” As in all of the songs on the album, the instrumentation doesn’t make use of a traditional song structure, but it doesn’t take away from Friend and Foe’s pop sensibilities. “Running” begins with a rolling piano progression chased by a low-tempo, pulsing bass line. The chanting vocals join in with a theatrical verse: “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 till winter.” The purposefully dramatic track echoes the fantastical style of folk singer Joanna Newsom’s album Ys, and is just as compelling. Other tracks to look out for include “Weird” and “Ghostship.”
Friend and Foe is consistently good throughout. The solid album doesn’t hold any obvious classics, but it doesn’t contain any standout sore spots, either. Menomena emerges as a sincerely innovative band and will have a lofty goal in topping Friend and Foe on its next release.

Contact Marissa Monson at mmonson@illinoistimes.com.
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