It’s a pretty common story in the land of indie-rock these days: A much-hyped and much-adored band releases a breakthrough album after toiling in anonymity for awhile, and then for years mounting upon years, silence. No follow-up, and very little word as to when one will arrive. The fanbase begins to get nervous, and the consensus is that, after all this time, the product will either be an unparalleled masterpiece or a dismal failure, the latter perhaps resulting from a collective band meltdown.
Menomena could’ve easily fallen into either category in the nearly four years following the release of their near-classic Friend and Foe. Tales of personal struggles and band disagreements filtered across the Web like dandelion seeds, and some fans of the band grew worried that a proper follow-up may be a long time coming. Even more disconcerting was the news that the band was largely collaborating (when at all) via email, never a good sign. That could mean not wanting to be in one another’s company as well as anything else, and it could mean another LP was about as likely as that second Postal Service album is.
Fear not, though, because at long last, Mines is a powerful, potent affair that manages to reflect its difficult birthing process while not succumbing to the tempting melodrama of it all. No one looks to Menomena for confessional songwriting, anyway, though their lyrics here manage to be witty, irreverent and smart, as always. No, Menomena are the kids unleashed in a band room with unlimited toys at their disposal, and that’s the skill they showcase best on Mines.
It’s still startlingly obvious with this release that Menomena is a carefully-balanced highwire act of switched roles and frequently traded instruments, all dependent upon a band-built computer looping program that could easily enslave its users rather than liberate them. But the benefit of this is that the album manages to still sound like 100 percent Menomena: unique, spastic and idiosyncratic, while subtly pushing the band in new creative directions at the same time, across genres and styles that the band wear like comfortable, well-loved wardrobe changes.
One noteworthy difference between Mines and Friend and Foe is that the former is a little more melodic than what came before. It seems here that the songs unfold more naturally, with less ideas crammed into every spare space possible, less of a sense of the clock slowly running out on a jarring, jittering album, with our heroes sawing away as if playing for evacuees fleeing the Titanic. Opener “Queen Black Acid” is a gentle, lulling number, evoking vaguely smoky R&B grooves before an anthemic chorus opens up with lyrics like “I made myself an open book, I made myself a sitting duck.” Even more compelling and heartwrenching are the later lines, “I stopped to eat and take a nap, and now I can’t find my way back.” Menomena are all about getting lost on the fairytale journey, where disorientation and altered perception are showpieces in their musical scenery.
Elsewhere, “TAOS” comes off as a smarter Kings of Leon sex-jam before getting all Stax-horns-section on us in the closing act. This versatility between numbers is sure to make for a hell of a compelling live performance on an upcoming tour, but it works on wax as well, better than other bands may be able to manage. For Menomena, consistency would sound forced and unnatural, while eclectic choices work better as their default setting. The only thing consistent here is the quality of the songwriting and the creative energy inherent in every note played.
It’s this sort of variety that keeps the engine chugging on Mines. From the power-ballad piano of “INTL” to the jittering percussion of “KIllemall”, this is an album as hard to predict as it is to nail down into one stylistic category, which proves to be its greatest strength. It’s no Friend and Foe and makes no claims to be, but Mines is a satisfying album on its own terms, in the way it quietly exceeds expectations and quiets naysayers anticipating a disaster. It doesn’t have to be overwhelmingly brilliant, just good. Thankfully, in this case, it’s also very good, indeed.