All words: Travis Andrews — All photos: Jeremy Kim
That phrase can be used to describe Portland-based Menomena for a number of different reasons, though the two most obvious include the band’s sound and its personal drama.
The band went through some pretty public spats for a while, ending in Brent Knopf departing the band. This was a ways after it had released the best album it has, to date, released: Friend or Foe. In interviews that followed, things didn’t get much prettier. There seemed to be a great deal of resentment and bitterness between the remaining and the departing member, all of it public, all of it making fans of the band cringe a little. I’ll be honest, after all that, I didn’t get the new record. A shallow reaction, perhaps, but some part of what made the band, one I like for its seemingly earnest lyrics, “Well it’s high time we step outside, drop the gloves and settle this like a man / We might stomp and hem and haw. We might not fight, but we won’t walk away.”
It’s an interesting line, considering everything that came later, and one can’t help but put every line into context of the band’s inner dynamics. But, of course, Knopf is gone and the band is still going.
The band’s music, though, remains somewhat splintered. This, on the other hand, is a good thing. Menomena has always pushed the creative boundaries of pop music, which is one thing that makes them so fascinating to listen to. It might also be why there is so much internal strife: creativity like this often comes at a price. Their songs are punctuated with sax blows, electronic spins, guitar bursts and pounding drums. But never quite linearly. You’re never sure what’s going to happen in a Menomena song, but when it happens, it makes perfect sense. Like a great work of fiction, it’s inevitable but surprising.
So, how do you recreate that live? This was my number one question at the Black Cat, and the answer was both delightful and disappointing.
The delightful lay in that the band was going to do everything in its power to offer up the album experience, to keep those songs as punctuated as ever, and to recreate complicated pop songs.
The disappointing was somewhat two-fold. First, the Black Cat is not a good venue for this band. They deserve the 9:30 Club, where sound is a top priority. I love the Black Cat, and there are tons of bands who would be at home on that stage. This simply was not one of them. The second issue also stems from the complexity of the songs. On many of them, the band seemed to have trouble getting fully into the song, since instrument changes were the norm. One frontman, singing between intricate drum bits and the other singing between saxophone bursts, leads to a kind of odd splintering on stage.
I’m not sure how else one would present these songs, but there seemed to be a weird dichotomy between intricacy and enthusiasm. The simpler songs, the ones that were more guitar-heavy and straightforward, were easily the most fun live.
The others have their place on headphones.