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Snapshot Review: Ramona Falls – Prophet [Barsuk]

photo by Jeni Stembridge

Brent Knopf formed Ramona Falls in early 2009 while recording on Menomena’s third album was delayed. The Ramona Falls debut full length Intuit featured collaborations with 35 different musicians on both U.S. coasts, and was generally well-received. One of the keys to making that record work was an uncanny ability to surprise the listener at every turn. A violin solo would pop up here, a choir there, and genre influences would shift wildly from looped electronica one moment to Eastern European folk the next. It sounds terribly unbalanced, but there was a subtlety and charisma behind it that sucked you in. After touring in support of Menomena’s record Mines was complete at the end of 2010, Knopf announced he was leaving the band to focus on Ramona Falls. Now that this project has his full attention, you’d expect Ramona Falls’ second record to be even denser than the last, continuing the evolution into obscurist pop. Then again, expectations can often be misleading.

The new album Prophet surprises mainly in how it pulls back on the reins of experimentation a little in favor of something that’s rather normal-sounding and pop-friendly. On the surface, it seems that Knopf is in search of some sort of mainstream success. Before he can actually get there though, he’s in dire need of some confidence on one end of his musical spectrum. The arrangements on this album are muscular and bright, but his vocals are almost exactly the opposite. He sings like a hybrid of Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, The Clientele’s Alasdair MacLean, and Sufjan Stevens, which is to say in a lilting, almost whispered fashion. His inability to match the enthusiasm and grandiosity of the busy melodies actually hurts its overall effectiveness. More often than not his singing winds up nearly drowned out by everything going on, and even when it meshes well with the environment it lacks the gravity and emotion required to truly hit home. The lyrics are more personal than anything Knopf has written before, but they suffer because of the straightlaced and flat way they’re sung. Opening track “Bodies of Water” is about the double-edged sword of romantic relationships, how you grow and share as a person but also expose yourself to the potential to get hurt. The complicated arrangement speaks well to the message of the song, but the vocals fall short. “Brevony” is a heavy and ferocious electric guitar cut, and though there are references to wrath and anger, Knopf calmly sings those words and destroys their potential impact. Not everything gets ruined due to some imperfect vocals. First single “Spore” is a slow and bubbling electro build to an energetic release, and Knopf pushes his voice accordingly. Though it feels disturbingly like an early Death Cab for Cutie song, “If I Equals U” maintains a certain degree of calm that makes its execution quite comfortable. Sad break-up song “Proof” might just win the award for album’s best though, with a complex yet delicate arrangement that includes orchestration and some careful plucking.

Perhaps Knopf’s biggest mistake in putting together this new Ramona Falls record was that he made it too energetic and upbeat. Normally such a thing would be encouraged because it tends to make a record more interesting. There is quite a bit about Prophet that is interesting and enjoyable as a direct result of this approach. The songs are far more rock oriented, but pounding pianos or blaring horns always make their presence felt here or there to throw a slight twist on an otherwise pedestrian melody. It’s in that way this record bears similar markings to Intuit. But using that record and his previous work with Menomena as examples, Knopf benefits most from careful and precarious execution; a certain fragility in the composition that matches the fragility in his voice. The greater confidence he attains instrumentally, the louder or more brash he gets, and the easier it is for him to stumble. A fair portion of this album leaves him tripping and trying to catch up with the many ideas spilling out through various instruments. Maybe with some vocal help he can catch up, or maybe he can scale back just enough to put everything back in its right place.

Ramona Falls – Spore

Ramona Falls – Sqworm

Buy Prophet from Barsuk

Album Review: Menomena – Mines [Barsuk]

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.

Menomena – Five Little Rooms

Buy “Mines” from Amazon

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