Nice Guys Finish First

The polite gents of Menomena make good on their debut's promise

There's a moment on "Muscle'n Flo," the opening track from Menomena's stunning new album Friend and Foe, when the lurching rhythm and Justin Harris' crooning vocals drop out in favor of a lovely piano figure by Brent Knopf, which he seamlessly segues into hallowed church-organ blasts and a reverb-saturated choir.

It's a breathtaking shift that only lasts momentarily before Danny Seim's crashing drums and Harris' exuberant shouts return everything back to chaos for the song's crunching coda.

Having such a cathartically stunning tune start an album may be daunting or ill-advised for most bands. Not Menomena, who effortlessly manage to impress and enthrall with their remaining 11 tracks. From the jagged eruptions of "The Pelican" to the bubbling beauty of "Wet and Rusting," or, if you prefer, the jaunty beauty of "Rotten Hell" and the brassy glamour of "Boyscout'n," the group consistently prove themselves capable of exceeding expectations. The trio manage to sound like an army thanks to Knopf's invention, the Digital Looping Recorder (DLR or Deeler, for short), which the band employs to create layers in their music.

Oddly, this Portland, Ore., three-piece honed their skills in the local Christian-rock scene.

In a recent phone interview, keyboardist/guitarist/vocalist Knopf (all members perform, at least, double duty) informed me that he was so taken by a performance of Justin and Danny's Christian rock group--whose music was "compelling" and evinced an "honesty (either) to their music or them as people"--that he eventually worked up the courage to ask Danny to coffee. Although Danny's then-girlfriend and now-wife thought it was a move "to get into Danny's pants," Knopf jested, it was merely the crush of a "No. 1 fan," who "secretly hoped they would add me to their band."

They would, of course, but that was after Brent went off to college, and Danny and Justin dissolved their previous outfit. In 2003, Menomena would release their fantastic and secular debut, I Am the Fun Blame Monster! ("the first Menomena album" anagrammed), to one notably rave review that instantly launched them into the indie spotlight.

"I had never heard of Pitchfork before, and somebody told Danny, 'Hey, you guys should send your CD into Pitchfork,'" Knopf explained. "Months go by ... then there's a review of our CD on Pitchfork, and that day, there's like 100 orders ... one of the orders was from Lithuania or something like that."

The upward trajectory of Menomena has been relatively tempered. Like any exalted indie act worth its mettle, the group endlessly toured, but, unlike many, they also avoid oversaturation--no unearthing of needless rare material and B-sides. In fact, rather than releasing the traditional sophomore album to capitalize on their newfound fame, the group collaborated with Portland dance troupe the Monster Squad and released a three-song instrumental album, appropriately titled Under an Hour.

Waiting until this January to release a proper follow-up, Menomena instantly reminded audiences and critics alike why they are so beloved. Friend and Foe is one of the year's most intriguing, idiosyncratic and downright fun listens. Each song is an unfolding puzzle of precious and pleasant twists and turns that can be attributed to having three central songwriters. "Although we don't have any sort of preordained rule (for the songs, like), 'It has to be 1/3, 1/3, 1/3,' that's how it ends up," Knopf said. This formula seems to have worked, as tags such as "experimental," "quirky" and "unconventional" are often served up alongside "exciting," "great" and "amazing."

The group is thankful and fortunate to hail from a particularly fertile and supportive Portland music scene, where even the city's premier indie-auteur, Lance Bangs, has given his blessing by directing the video for "Wet and Rusting."

"He's such a nice guy," Knopf said. "The idea came out of, 'What would you guys do if you had a video camera and wanted to establish your last will and testament?' So we all brainstormed together and got those ideas." The humorously poignant video requests include having Kanye West produce the final Menomena album, a farewell tour in a zeppelin and a casket sent into space.

In fact, their lo-fi video highlights the oft-overlooked side of Menomena: their killer sense of humor. When asked to explain how the group decided to move to Barsuk Records (former home of Death Cab for Cutie) from Film Guerrero (with whom they're are still involved) for the release of Friend and Foe, Knopf detailed a pleasant and precise account of the transaction, but, deciding it sounded "very businessman douchebag" offered: "Basically, Josh (Rosenfeld, Barsuk co-founder and president) came over, and he hung me out a five-story window by my ankles and demanded I sign to Death Row Records."

Sometimes, it's hard to completely root for a band. Something about their music or, more likely, their personality will rear up and tarnish expectations. Menomena, however, are gifted at making remarkably fascinating and complex music that, like their personalities, is never impenetrable or off-putting. Friend? Yes. Foe? Never.

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