The way Menomena records music is a little different compared to how almost every other band does it. In an effort to develop their songs as organically and democratically as possible, the band builds their songs one piece at a time, using a looping program to improvise a riff or a drum part or whatever other instrument strikes their fancy. Each member of the trio takes a turn recording a snippet before passing the microphone onto the next guy, who then builds from that. If you’ve ever seen an artist like Andrew Bird perform solo, the way he pieces together his songs via the use of looping pedals is similar to what Menomena does, only their style is far more improvisational. It’s led to some fascinating creative choices, first brought to light via their 2004 debut album “I Am the Fun Blame Monster” and more recently on 2007’s “Friend and Foe”. It’s been yet another 3 year gap as a testament to the band’s arduous recording process, which means that Menomena owes us another album. “Mines” fulfills that imaginary debt, and it turns out to be their most realistically composed and beautiful record to date.
With so many bands releasing compelling debut albums and then falling by the wayside with follow-ups that don’t live up to the hype, Menomena are working on an opposite track, learning from their past albums to evolve. Not to say that their previous efforts weren’t good (both are great in fact), but it’s the little things, the things you don’t always notice initially, that proves the band is growing little by little. The songs on “Mines” are tighter, smarter and better crafted than anything they’ve done previously. It’s also a quieter album, choosing to rely more on sheer nuance and evoking a certain emotion rather than attempting to be particularly catchy or easily digestible. You need to give it a few listens before many of the songs really start to sink in and reveal their depth, and considering it’s a pretty gorgeous ride from the get-go, hopefully racking up the repeat plays won’t be too cumbersome. Picking out the individual instruments as they weave in and out of each song is part of the fun, and you’ll find everything from saxophones to trumpets and piano and xylophones, often within the same track. It’d feel random if it wasn’t so gorgeous and natural at the same time.
Outside of the aesthetic value “Mines” provides, there’s also plenty of fascinating lyrics to keep your mind occupied. Trying to determine some sort of logical meaning behind what’s being said might prove to be an impossible challenge given that much of the lyrics are probably just various phrases shoved together. But even if there’s no specific pattern or storyline you can easily catch onto, either the word arrangement or simply the way they’re sung is wholly compelling. The band will sometimes take a singular phrase and repeat it several times in a row in different ways that gives it a new strength every time. “Dirty Cartoons” features a chorus of “I’d like to go home” that seems plain reading it on paper, but given Menomena’s dynamite harmonies combined with the forceful instrumental, it hits mighty hard. The same goes for the nuance of a line like “All this could be yours someday” from “Five Little Rooms”, which makes it one of the more memorable and catchy tracks on the album. Equally great is also the brash and sheer energy of “Taos”, a track that’s probably closest to the Menomena of old and makes for possibly the best song on the entire album.
Speaking of memorable and catchy, certainly one of the complaints about “Mines” will be that most of the songs lack the hooks previous Menomena albums have had. There are fewer verse-chorus-verse songs than in the past, and the record is generally slower which can strip away much of the band’s poppier side. But like any piece of great art, the austere beauty is what keeps you coming back, not so much because of how fun or immediate it is. Sigur Ros never takes any flak for crafting epic, 7-minute songs with no choruses, so why should Menomena get different treatment just because most of their songs are about 5 minutes and only sometimes have choruses? Perhaps it’s because Menomena has proven with songs like “Wet and Rusting” or “Evil Bee” that they can deliver incredible pop-leaning songs, and that they’re not doing as much about it on “Mines” can be frustrating for some.
Fans of Menomena from their previous albums shouldn’t have much trouble liking “Mines”. The band has been around long enough to create certain expectations with each one of their songs, and thankfully that’s something they continue to deliver on. There’s still the army of different instruments played by each of the band members in a rotating fashion, that pop up at moments that might seem so wrong but feel so right. That’s part of Menomena’s brilliance, and they have it on full display with this new record. Most everything’s improved on some level or another from what they’ve done before, though that’s also caused many of their songs to be that much more impenetrable. It’ll probably take some work to buy into what’s being sold here, but like some of the best things in life, the reward is worth the trip. Yet again Menomena have crafted another gem, and one worthy of being remembered at the end of the year. Buy a copy and discover the magic of “Mines” for yourself.