Menomena emerged in 2003 with a scattershot smattering of almost everything that could go right with indie rock. Fusing rock and electronic approaches to songcraft, I Am the Fun Blame Monster was a giddy experiment in adventuresome pop. Sounding something like if Fugazi were more willing to have fun or Blonde Redhead weren’t so willfully arty and snobbish, the band proved endearing on impact and won over what net-savvy music fans encountered them.
Three years later and after an album of commissioned instrumental works, Menomena return with their official follow up to their breathless debut. Whereas one would have hoped to hear the band recapture that same spark of their first record or at least recast it into some other force just as striking, Menomena instead decided to dumb down and slump their way into mere mediocrity. While their talents have not retreated entirely, the relentless energy that made their debut so engaging has disappeared. What remains is an incredibly competent band delivering songs that just aren’t that exciting or distinguishable.
That the band’s astounding dexterity and attention to detail still come through so strongly only makes the album more frustrating. Their palette of sounds well exceeds what would otherwise be expected of only three people. At the same time they demonstrate enough taste not to overdo anything. There is no excess here, no superfluous sounds and no note out of place. “Boyscout’n” embodies all these strengths stretching out for over five minutes of such disparate elements as alternately swinging and stomping brass, delicate piano, spindly guitars, bombastic percussion, and classic Disney sing-a-long whistling. Remarkably the band somehow sews such an imposingly expansive array into one cohesive creation.
As impressive as it is, that same cohesiveness could also be credited for the overall disappointment of Friend and Foe. As interesting and intricate as their arrangements get, these songs still sound way too tame to captivate. It’s not for lack of effort that the album fails, but that entirely too much thinking has incapacitated all vitality.
Just as much to blame is Menomena’s decidedly different turn in tone. Whereas I Am the Fun Blame Monster was unmitigated fun, Friend and Foe attempts something more soberly contemplative. This regrettable attempt at maturity comes off as forced and feigned rendering the band as boring as any other affectedly serious artist.
Of course that kind of mopey and supposed sincerity still stirs up a fair share of indie adulation and those unfamiliar with Menomena may not ever notice what they lost here. Ultimately the band sounds right at home on the roster of their new label, the Death Cab for Cutie-incubating Barsuk. Whether that statement stands as disparaging or complimentary remains subjective.