all photos: Shauna Alexander
Menomena and Suckers do a similar thing through very different means. Both bands build songs to big, swelling finales. These blowouts aren’t always loud per se – though they often are – but they consistently deliver the gratifying feeling of everything becoming whole, of something larger than the sum of its parts. The difference in how the bands accomplish this in interesting, and it helps explain why Suckers is a good band and why Menomena is a great one.
For all their eccentric flourishes, Suckers take a very linear approach to its songs. The Brooklyn band’s songs gradually build, simmer pensively back down for an instrumental passage, and then go for broke, shrieking and falling apart at the seams. The results can feel momentous, as they did Wednesday night on the majestic “2 Eyes 2 C” and “It Gets Your Body Movin.’” But, like a busted Toyota, you have a pretty good idea where things are going from the start.
Menomena isn’t nearly as obvious. It teases the audience’s expectations, introducing elements and removing them just as you’re wrapping your head around a song. Each element – a piano line, an electric guitar riff, a tambourine shake, a backing harmony – feels as if a domino the band is propping up for later. And in that moment when everything clicks, when the dominos fall, you hear a band in complete control of its aesthetic.
That control is something found throughout this year’s Mines. Perhaps more than anything since Kill the Moonlight, the album is a reflection of how a rock band can manipulate open space to maximize the impact of nuance. Hearing the band execute the precision of these songs live at 9:30 Club was nothing short of thrilling.
The band emerged to music box tinkering of “Tithe”. The song carefully unfurled, a rising piano line met temporarily by a clipped post-punk guitar and then drummer Danny Seim’s worn-in vocals. In the end, Seim’s bandmates joined in unison, repeating a defeated refrain: “Nothing sounds appealing.” As with most of Seim’s material, lyrical themes of insecurity were contrasted with muscular, confident backing.
The most muscular tracks belonged to those fronted by Justin Harris. He may claim to “not be the most cocksure guy” on “TAOS”, but his songs certainly have a swagger missing from his counterparts’. New entries “BOTE” and “TAOS” incorporated the classic rock bombast and saxophone blurts of 2007’s Friend and Foe into Mines’ more slippery structures. His relatively straightforward entries to the former record – the formidable “Muscle’n Flow” and cymbal-crashing “The Pelican” – were received with headbanging fanfare.
Rounding out the trio of songwriters was Brent Knopf. With coifed hair and an oxford, Knopf was the preppy foil to Harris’s classic rock chic (flowing locks, beard, low cut v-neck) and Seim’s west coast stoner (Wu-Tang t-shirt, tilted hat, bare feet). His vocals were similarly precious, sung with a half-smirk and veering slightly towards those of choir boy. But Knopf’s songs are hardly puerile. Whether from Mines (“Killemall”) or Friend and Foe (“Wet and Rusting”, “Evil Bee”), his material required the most ambitious mix of rhythmic backing and harmonies, while also somehow containing the night’s most accessible pop hooks.
That Menomena is capable of pulling off a high-wire act of such discipline isn’t necessarily a knock to its opening act. I’ve written twice this year about Suckers, and most everything I’ve already observed applies to this performance. The band is capable of some compelling stuff. With a hopscotching beat and soaring, romantic horns leading to a drunken wordless sing-along, “Martha” is an endearing pop gem waiting to find a large audience. More sinister and aflutter with synths, “A Mind I Knew” was engagingly propulsive.
The more I’ve see Suckers though, and the more I listen to this year’s Wild Smile, the more I question all that Quinn Walker brings to the table. Walker splits lead vocal duties with Pan – whose deep, straight faced vocals recall Alec Ounsworth recalling David Byrne – but such demarcation is arbitrary, or at least tentative, as things usually end in all four members howling along. Suckers is a band that sounds best when it sings with one voice.
But for whatever reason, Walker was given carte blanche when the band recorded Wild Smile. And much like Kanye West encouraged to “act all crazy in this motherfucker” on the “Power” remix, Walker and his shrieking falsetto are constantly acting all crazy in the motherfucker.
I’m willing to look past the sustained falsetto of “Before Your Birthday Ends”. Walker doesn’t have quite the chops to pull it off, but it’s a valiant effort at some R&B fusion. What’s frustrating is his wailing into otherwise good songs with often cringeworthy results. On “A Mind I Knew”, he crashes an otherwise solid Pan song, screeching about crippled demons and semen. On “2 Eyes 2 C”, he’s raving abrasively about vampires and scapegoats and he being a child and you being a child.
Is he serious? Maybe not, at least judging by his performance on Wednesday. Walker appeared completely disinterested in the material, jokingly pantomiming lyrics and making bird motions with hands. When he injected his shriek into the midsection of “Martha”, it was hard not to think his intentions were confrontational.
Perhaps in year of Pavement’s reunion, we should take half-assed showmanship with a grain of salt. But maybe Walker could learn from Menomena that taking your craft seriously and maintaining a sense of humor are not mutually exclusive.