Menomena’s debut album I Am the Fun Blame Monster has official release dates in September, but it’s been available and circulating since it was self-released last year. Fortunately, I had the chance to hear the music before I saw the packaging; otherwise, I might never have made it the whole way to the disc. See, the CD comes tucked in the back of a 100-or-so-page flipbook that warrants multiple flips to make sure you catch everything. It even explains the origin of this album’s name (hint: it’s an anagram). All told, though, the book might be the least weird part of Menomena.
Certainly the band members bring a unique method of composition to their songs. Member Brent Knopf invented a computer program called Deeler that he describes as a “loop-based program that facilitates improvisational recording”. I’d break this idea down for you, but I wouldn’t get you any closer to understanding it (since I don’t know what the heck is going on, other than that Menomena uses Deeler more to aid with songwriting than in performance or recording). Essentially, I suppose, it means the band combines the energy and chaos of improv with the precision of electronic music. Throw in some ambience and some saxophone and you’ve captured the band’s sound.
Well, you haven’t really captured it, because they sound like no one else. My first comparison was going to be to the Unicorns (especially on “The Late Great Libido”), but then Menomena slipped into this Radiohead style, but then the group kind of went off from there. What you get is this music that’s pop at heart, but split so many ways that you don’t know what to do with it. But even that doesn’t do it justice, because you might be thinking glitch-pop (with which this album shares no affinities) or “deconstruction” (which intellectualizes the music in a misdirecting way). Several songs have digital dropouts, but the songs really ride on their hooks, and sometimes, as on “Trigga Hiccups”, on Justin Harris’s melodic basslines.
You’re with me so far, but pay attention because this is the important part: I Am the Fun Blame Monster is as entertaining as anything released this year. When Menomena rock, they throw everything on the disc in that chaotic-yet-precise way, with the drums hammering these incredible patterns and the guitars blasting and the organ going off. You’ll bounce around much more than you’ll try to decipher what’s going on on the album. Don’t think about it — turn it up.
Just when you start thinking that these heavy drums are going to turn clubby or that you’re going to have a party album on your hands (not literally — they’ll still be occupied with the flipbook), Menomena turns everything around with the slow pacing of “Oahu”. The song’s a perfect fit and doesn’t feel like an obligatory ballad, probably because it’s so emotionally intense. Most of the vocals are buried in effects on this track, but you don’t need them to get to the effect. An acoustic(-sounding) piano provides the melody, a descending little line the rides above a steady cymbal-based groove. Then the vocals come clear: “Lurking in the deep”. It could be scary, but it’s more sad than anything after Knopf’s piano has taken you down to those very depths.
Even with this much going on in its music, Menomena never sounds gimmick-y. When something’s got a gimmick, you give it your attention once and toss it aside, but I Am the Fun Blame Monster requires repeated listens to even begin to pick out the diverse elements at work here. If you get caught up with Deeler, you’ll miss out on the extreme talent displayed in the often syncopated (always exciting) drumming performed by Danny Seims. You’ll miss out on the time signature in “Oahu”, which feels like 6/8 for most of the song, except when there’s suddenly a beat missing. The first couple times I played with the flipbook, I didn’t realize that the man in the chair suddenly acquires a mask. Or the drawing that makes up his face for one panel. Or that that drawing is on Harris’s hand on the picture right above it. If a band can produce a flipbook that has you going back to see what you missed, what do you think their music’s like?
Yeah, and if that doesn’t do it for you, just visit their web site while you play the album.