The last decade has seen Oregon’s Portland establish itself as a serious hive for new music, luring artists Child Catcher-like with its low rents and soundproof basements. You’ll know Modest Mouse, of course, The Decemberists and The Shins, and The Gossip’s Beth Ditto stares down at us ubiquitous from newsstand magazine covers like a liberalised Big Brother, but Menomena remain comparatively unknown, despite the acclaim awarded to their 2007 album Friend and Foe.
To be fair theirs is a somewhat strange sound, neither overt experiment nor outright alternative songcraft, with a production quality closer to hand-distributed demos than mainstream polish. Initially, perhaps, Mines seems a touch disjointed, possibly even unfinished, opener ‘Queen Black Acid’ sparse and restrained, simple couplets and tiptoeing piano an understated induction to the album. But behind the nursery rhyming darker sounds bubble and blister, horns and distortion rising portentously, menace and warning bristling just below the surface.
At times it breaks loose, peals of guitar lashing across ‘Taos’ like monsoon storms and relenting just as erratically. “I’m not the most cocksure guy” sings Justin Harris, his words an underpinning for the whole album, insecurity patterned across its eleven tracks as though through rock. There’s a fragility behind the trumpet squalls and piano runs that belies the slight adolescence of the album’s song titles, a darkness that only really becomes apparent later, once the melodies have taken root and begun to decay. You can hear it in the occasional breaking vocal or quivering note, the uncertain, slightly stumbling piano lines, ever-present yet never contrived.
That’s not to say it’s a bleak listen by any means – there’s nothing Keane here – and whilst the lyric sheets tend towards shadow musically this is nearer carnival, albeit sinister and out of season. A glut of instruments vie for attention throughout, from saxophones to synthesizers and glockenspiels, and songs abound with structural shifts and tangential rhythms, ‘Tithe’ moving from an ambient minimalism to epic anthem with disarming fluidity.
At points it’s an effort to accept that these songs were made by just three people, the abundance of ideas seeming so unfairly apportioned when most musicians struggle for anything even nearing originality. From the chase-scene strings of ‘Killemall’ to ‘Oh Pretty Boy, You’re Such A Big Boy’s’ cheeky interplay of ivory and brass, Menomena create a richly playful array of sounds, rarely predictable and never bloated. Yet Mines is arguably at its most affecting at its most pared down, harmonies merged in rising catharsis at the close of ‘Dirty Cartoons’, its refrain echoed like cries at a Pentecostal church.
This isn’t an album that’s ever going to gain mainstream appeal: it’s too awkward, too halting in its sound, too unconventional in its ambition. But it’s tremendous – complex and contradictory, confident yet introspected and always always interesting. That alone should be enough to recommend it.