By Chris Moore:
RATING: 4 / 5 stars
The clean, clear pattern of bass and guitar give way to the atmospheric hum of vague distortion and drum fills. The singer declares and repeats, “I walked right in through the rabbit’s door / And walked right into a rabbit’s hole / I made myself an open book / I made myself a sitting duck.” It ends disjointed, harmonies both beautiful and haunting, and it ends with a final tom hit.
This is “Queen Black Acid,” Menomena’s opening track on Mines. It hints at the blend of trippy and serious qualities that are to come, and it aptly sets up this Carrollian dream image of the rabbit’s hole. For Mines, though, openness isn’t a celebrated childhood quality.
For Mines, openness is a characteristic of those liable to get hurt.
Across eleven tracks, Menomena assemble a patchwork of riffs, both instrumental and lyrical, and achieve a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. The manner in which the band composes is a fascinating process of playing out for extended periods of time, examining the results, working in pieces, writing lines and instrumental segments to connect parts into the resulting whole songs and, ultimately, sequencing the whole album.
“Killemall” is a striking example of the outcome of this process, uniting such diverse segments as smoothly as it does. There are frantic drums, manic piano, haunting background vocals broken up by stops filled with harsh bursts of drums and organ. Thematically, the concept of truth is explored, and the implications for honesty in the living aren’t promising: “Have you met your ghost? / He says things that you won’t” and, later, “The spirits are ventriloquists / They say the thing that must be said.” The riffs on piano (and one other instrument I “ain’t quite identified yet”) are the glue that holds this composition together. To write a whole song based merely on one of the handful of sections would probably not be rewarding.
Taken as a whole, “Killemall” is a compelling song.
Considering the jam mentality at the front-end and the fragmented nature of the segments sorted out at the back-end, the coalescence apparent in the final product is a remarkable feat of songwriting.
From the lulling sadness of the “Dirty Cartoons” refrain of “I’d like to go home, go home” to the distorted guitar that cracks through the silence in the opening movement of “Tithe,” it is clear that a narrative of sorts is being strung together. The latter settles on the realization “Nothing seems appealing” and subsequently devolves into a cacophony of riffs and voices battling for attention.
This leads the listener to the “shit storm” and the narrator’s “sinking ship” on “BOTE,” a centerpiece track that presents a crisis expressed in seafaring metaphors and explores the resulting shocks of awakening. “I thought I was tough / I thought I was strong / Thought I could handle anyone who came along,” comes the first confession. This is followed quickly by the qualification that, “The worth of a boat’s / In how well it floats / And this old boat won’t float for long with all these holes / So I grab both sides with iron will / It’s fit for war but weighs too much and starts to fill.” Herein lies the weakness that sunk the ship: what was thought to be strength was actually a heaviness that doomed the ship after it had taken several hard hits, struck with “holes”.
Another instance of a clever device comes on “Oh Pretty Boy, You’re a Big Boy” when the band opens with the lines, “All my life I’ve run away / From those who’ve begged me to stay / All your love is not enough / To fill my half empty cup.” This nomadic sense is extended at the close of the song, as the onus of the fear is flipped to focus on the narrator’s shortcomings: “All my love was in one place / Til I let it escape / And all my love is not enough / To fill your half empty cup.”
It is on the eerie “Five Little Rooms” that the singer repetitively declares, “All this could be yours someday.” This is referring directly to the five little rooms and their tenants, but it could also be understood to suggest the landscape and content of the album as a whole, this vulnerability that has been inescapably stumbled upon.
The natural response to this is anticipated in the line: “All this someday could be yours / Cross your heart, click your heels and get the hell away.”
Mines presents a richly dangerous and dysfunctional landscape of love, fear, and loss: loss of control, loss of hope. Knopf, Harris, and Seim juggle instruments and singing duties, blurring the lines between roles in the band and consequently blurring the lines of what a song is supposed to sound like. There are loops here and riffs and repetition, but there are also authentic instruments and carefully constructed words and sounds. Mines lays out a world that one can get lost in, one anticipated in the cry/prayer in “Taos”: “Oh my God bring me peace from this wolf covered in fleece / I can’t shake loose from its teeth / Oh my God set me free for I’ve no ability to cut my leash and walk away, away, away…”
For its composition, imagination, and innovation, Mines is one of the premier albums of the year. At the risk of overstatement, it is a record that calls for a reassessment of what an album can be.