(Barsuk; 2010)

By Calum Marsh & Dom Sinacola | 30 July 2010

Mines is an unhappy album. This is nothing new; it’s a distinction Mines shares with any of Menomena’s previous releases—which, in retrospect, (darkened to chiaroscuro by Mines’s dour shadow) are seeming sadder and sadder by the day. Who knew I Am the Fun Blame Monster (2003) was beset by such a pall of dread? That the serpentine and oddly accented “I am / Fused out of / Iron” was so…pathetic? Fans, for one, and their numbers are growing: by now, Menomena is way bigger than Portland, an ever-burgeoning popularity built on sad bastard music disguised by the visceral thrills of freewheelin’ electronica. It’s a sophisticated, labored sound they’ve put their name to, but one with a cartoonish bent, every anagram, flipbook, and uneasy reference to Christian cock-rock one more distraction from the truth that the emotions this music conveys are as cartoonishly proportioned as its special edition vinyl. Failure, angst, spiritual repression: these are ripe for the picking in any Menomena song, these melodramatic and consuming feelings—but sometimes a sputtering hi-hat is a lot more fun.

And Mines just may be the band’s unhappiest music yet—unhappy like it’s got something to prove unhappy; unhappy like all the album’s press materials ring out with its mighty unhappiness unhappy; unhappy like it is made lean and tired by the weight of the world unhappy. But Mines has nothing to prove and no one to prove it to: it is still, despite how diversely exciting this stuff sounds, a compendium of pained recollections and desperate pleas, half-hearted battlecries and year-late resolutions, all masked by a lot of really neat, pretty noise. In other words, the trajectory of Mines’s sadness is always inward—Mines is sad for the sake of sad. Mines is unhappy like impenetrably unhappy unhappy.
As a portrait of irreconcilable alienation, the loneliness on Mines is so overwhelming that their three-piece feels more than ever like the product of one. And so Mines plays out like a pop interpretation of Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte, where privileged cast-offs long for a sense of place and belonging, for a genuine connection with other people they know, bone-deep, doesn’t exist. Other people: as Mines sees it, their lives are just heading perpetually downhill, “like a bobsled without the teamwork / or the televised support” as it’s lamented on “Tithe.” Antonioni’s damned fill their lives with decadence and deviance, glitzy diversions to pass the time or, even better, to maybe help them, for brief moments, feel something, and on Mines Menomena do much the same. The starburst drum-fills, the jackknife stabs of guitar, the vocal melodies bronzed with catchiness—all of it soars, nodding at vitality, as though the aesthetics of joy might, if stressed enough, smother sadness until it’s finally gone for good. It distracts us, too, makes us forget for a second what this stuff is really about. When “Tithe” declares, ad infinitum, that “nothing sounds appealing,” are we hearing it? Because Mines, after all, sounds so very appealing; this is some of the band’s best-sounding work to do date. This is about alienation and boredom swirling, like a barbershop pole, toward self-esteem’s great black hole, but it’s hard not to fall over ourselves with excitement for just how far this band has come and how assuredly their compositions unfold.

After all, one could be forgiven for forgetting that Menomena haven’t been around much longer than half a decade. The trio, comprised of local Portland indie pop stalwarts Danny Seim, Brent Knopf, and Justin Harris, has built a profile as comparably infectious as the Decemberists (the other high-profile Portland mainstay of the past five years) while carving out solo careers solidified by increasingly transparent technical prowess and unflagging regional respect. But the more popular they become the more accessible they seem, and now more than ever they stand tall as a true-blue pop band. “Accessible” is the only way one can describe “Dirty Cartoons,” a song wrapped around Seim’s anthemic, even devastating refrain: “I’d like to / Go home.” It’s a painfully broad sentiment expressed in melodramatic poses, a thousand heartbroken Seims in the background repeating his prayer, trying to harmonize but mostly getting choked up while his voice literally wails on the mix. As Mines‘s first brazen moment, Seim’s lyrics and public outcry become the album’s lynchpins: there is no way to avoid becoming deeply affected by something so understandably wounded.

Though “Tithe” reveals itself a Siamese twin to “Dirty Cartoons”’ abandon and catharsis, “Intil” is the direct descendant. It ends the album in a graceful admission of defeat: “Times when I’m with you / I’m really not myself / ‘Cuz you don’t want the truth / You want someone else.” How else to put it; what else could so narrowly strike that chord of rejection, that buzzing tendon plucked at the heart of any alienated feeling any of us have ever experienced? That Brent Knopf’s voice carries, sedated but brimming with nostalgia and regret, over the most portentous of piano chord progressions only dots the “I” at the heart of Mines’s utter, wrenching solitude. (Now would be the time to mention the album’s title, but we think you get the point.)

“All this could be yours / Someday,” sung as if Menomena is maturing, going adult—only to inherit all the depression, disappointment, compromised idealism, condescension, and fear such adulthood by necessity (or at least so it sounds in Danny Seim’s mouth) brings. Just how did this band, over the course of three “proper” records and one instrumental digression, come to appear so aged and weathered, their trademark childlike wonder now coming to resemble only distant memories of the same? Their career, though still so brief, now seems dense and complicated, its progression a process we haven’t quite understood. At least up until now, wherein Mines operates as Menomena-in-retrospect.

Looking back, Under An Hour (2005) reveals itself as the key to Menomena’s discography: denied the ability to verbalize their feelings, their music is free to speak solely for itself, reminding us just how stark the contrast between what’s said and how it’s said is in their work. The album is beautifully composed and adroitly executed—like all of their music, it’s a straight-up pleasure to listen to—but because of its ultimate simplicity, because it lacks the thematic complexity so tightly wound up in the mechanics of their non-instrumental records, it falls short of their otherwise high standard.

At its best, Menomena’s music is more than the sum of its parts—and if Under An Hour was the antithesis to that idea, Mines represents the synthesis of both positions: here Menomena have managed to focus their sound considerably, to taper their eccentricities without sacrificing the great spiritual weight at their core—still so at odds with the superficial joyousness of these songs—that feels so much firmer than the basic building-blocks of their material. No question the trio has grown considerably, and individually, as songwriters, what with Lackthereof and Ramona Falls still at only the beginning of promising discographies. But Mines is a promise fulfilled, a document of a band at the height of their powers reminding fans they have so many powers yet untapped.