Friday, January 2, 2009

Menomena. Friend and Foe (Barsuk, 2007)

"You always had the quickest wit/ The quickest quips and I can't keep up/ It's clear that you have a real gift of gab/ And I'm just jealous/ Maybe that's the way you and I will always relate."

There's a real easy answer as to why I love Menomena's third LP Friend and Foe: the drums. The drums on this record are effing awesome, man. They sound great -- way up in the mix, agile and pummeling -- and the dudes behind the kit (Danny Seim, Justin Harris, and Brent Knopf apparently switch up various instrumental duties, and the album's impressive cover art makes deciphering who's playing what when basically impossible) straight destroy the material.

The playing on this ear-catching collection of experimental pop and bargain-basement prog rock reminds me a lot of J Mascis's drumming on Dinosaur Jr.'s Green Mind: loose, heavy, and inventive, matching the cockeyed melodies expertly and adding a few facets of its own.

Of course, hooks are important, as well, and Menomena (who I can only assume took their name from the Muppet Show number) dishes them out wholesale. This is one of the richest, most intricately constructed albums I heard in '07, a dense, thoughtful bunch of endlessly surprising tunes. There's layers upon layers of melody in each track, employing strings and horns and pianos and guitars and who knows what else to carry the AP-level ideas. It's an LP of curveballs, and every one comes in right over the plate.

Muscle'n Flo gets Friend and Foe started with an album highlight: a gorgeous major-key dirge riding an incredible rhythm track. The way the tight snare rolls build into the thunderous cymbal crashes is a show stopper, sure to quicken your pulse and get your fists pumping. The gritty guitar flourishes and twinkling piano refrains add to the fun, and the result is a classic bit of mindbending indie pop. Check out the delicate, stately bridge at the 1:46 mark, lifted by a holy-rolling organ and a defiantly wistful vocal melody.

Second track Weird is a sinister, stalking exercise in kissing-off, another thrilling drum track pushing the rest of the band through a brutal break-up. The slightly mocking sax lines bounce off the sonar-sounding guitar pings as the singer sneers, "So I won't let how I sincerely feel here stand in my way/ 'Cause there's no love lost that I can't find again, my dear friend."

Menomena attempt their best Wolf Parade impression on The Pelican, the giant, echoing pianos, serrated guitar panics, and David Byrne nightmare vocals the spitting image of Canada's favorite wolf-named band. But it works, a clear album standout, so fair play. The track has a lurching majesty straight out of the best fever dreams.

"Wet and Rustling" is one of Friend and Foe's gentler offerings, an Arcade Fire-esque sojourn built around bright acoustic strums, cascading pianos, and machine gun snare hits. "Boyscout'n" uses an insistently catchy whistle hook and orchestral drums to brilliant effect; "My My" could be a Death Cab for Cutie -- or even a Flaming Lips circa The Soft Bulletin -- outtake, and a good one. The album's prettiest tune, Ghostship uses little more than a rubbery bassline and jingle bells to build an achingly affecting melody.

Friend and Foe is the work of some gifted -- and addled -- minds. While there are clear influences to be traced throughout the album, it ultimately sounds wholly original, far more than the sum of its parts. If you're a fan of leftfield song structures and space-cadet melodies tethered to monster drum lines, then you're going to like Friend and Foe.