With their fourth and latest album, Mines, Menomena are withholding their kookier tendencies. Well, “withholding” might be a bit misleading. More accurately, Menomena are prolonging the amount of time between experimental passages by spending larger chunks of time trying out conventional structures. It’s not an unusual path for a band known for their singular songwriting vision. Animal Collective achieved their greatest success to date by learning to stop worrying about proving their esotericism and love pop. The difference here is where Animal Collective only grew more magnanimous with their hooks, Menomena appear to be pensive and morose on Mines.
But the hooks haven’t disappeared from Menomena’s bag of tricks. It’s just surprising to hear them giving ballads a periodic shot. This is, after all, a band that assembled their first album (2007’s I Am the Fun Blame Monster) out of fruitful jam sessions that were later spliced together in a software program. On Mines, there is a stronger focus on classic songwriting and confessional lyricism. Just as frequently, these extended traditional arrangements are violently broken with choppy guitars and skittering drums, sounds more familiar and soothing to your average Menomena fan. The frequent tonal shifts make Mines one of Menomena’s richest efforts.
Menomena are still very much a studio band. This is a three man band, and the extravagant instrumentation betrays a band reliant on loops and edits. But, as ever with Menomena, this penchant for studio trickery works to the band’s advantage, particularly when “Tithe” unfurls one layer of sound after another until the listener is fully overwhelmed. Yet those quieter moments are just as striking. Opener “Queen Black Acid” dwells on a simple strumming pattern for much of its length, developing a palpable tension that doesn’t really give way to the expected musical explosion until the following track (“TAOS”) begins.
“Dirty Cartoons” starts small, and eventually swells into something more epic, but the refrain of “Go home, I’d like to” keeps the song grounded in a deeply affecting, melancholic valley that no fuzzy bassline or punchy beat can cancel out. Closer “INTIL,” with its orthodox piano and twinkly, delayed guitars, ventures close to Coldplay territory. Even the lyrics (“I’ll only show you half/ the rest, I gotta hide…sometimes I say too much”) are comprised of cookie cutter introspective musings. Fortunately, Menomena know how to turn up the bombast enough to keep these tropes interesting.
Still, Mines works best when Menomena stick to what they know. New structures aside, blasts of gutbucket art-rock are what made their name, and audiences should be pleased that Menomena still deploy them with regularity. “BOTE” is all skronky saxophone, heavy blues bass, stuttering drums and wild slide guitars; the Menomena you know and love. “Oh Pretty Boy, You’re Such a Big Boy” combines an insidious kraut-rock groove with some cat-running-across-the-piano-in-the-dead-of-night runs (got that?). In light of these treats, maybe it’s not so bad that Menomena want you to check out their poetry these days.