New Vs. Old? No Contest
It began a couple of weeks back when, to mark Jerry Garcia’s death anniversary, I wrote a piece remembering my own dalliance with the music of Garcia and his erstwhile band, The Grateful Dead. For much of the next couple of weeks, I found myself delving deeper and deeper into music that I’d first heard decades ago. I fished out a DVD (a gift from a friend) of Blind Faith’s concert in Hyde Park in 1969; I rummaged through my music collection to look for Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats (1969); I found a New Riders of The Purple Sage album, The Adventures of Panama Red (1973) that I hadn’t heard in ages and so on. In other words, I turned retro. But it wasn’t too long before I was jolted out of my nostalgia-laden reminiscing by some astoundingly good new music.
Actually, it was by a band that I’d never heard about before. Menomena are a trio from Portland, Oregon and have been classified by music critics as being an experimental rock outfit whose music they’ve compared to bands such as The Flaming Lips and Pink Floyd (not that I find much in common between the great sound of the Lips and the, well, er, sound of Floyd). But then critics like to pigeon-hole music and put stickers of genre, type and category on whatever they listen to — and sometimes that is just a part of their job. I’d like to describe Menomena simply as a band that you must listen to. Must. If you have, you know what I’m talking about.
First, I don’t think anyone ought to even try to classify Menomena’s music. Although they’ve been around since 2003, I caught the trio’s music quite late, only very recently, really, when I came across their fourth album, Mines. At different parts of the 11-song album, Mines reminded me of different bands. Yes, there were whiffs of The Flaming Lips but there also was Animal Collective and, on some tracks, even minimalist blues bands.
More on that later. First, here’s a bit more about the band. Menomena’s Brent Knopf, Justin Harris, and Danny Seim use a self-developed software programme in the songwriting process (that doesn’t mean they don’t use conventional instruments, which they do). The computer programme, called the Digital Looping Recorder, which Knopf developed, enables them to pass a single microphone around among the three musicians, each of whom lays a track down using drums, guitars, pianos, horn instruments and so on. Each of these sounds is looped as the subsequent instruments are played and laid on the track. The three often swap their instruments and this, together with the looping recorder, says the band, keeps the songwriting process “democratic”. When you listen to Mines or any other of the four albums that Menomena have released, you can’t really make out whether a looping recorder programme has been used but I liked the concept of trying to make the songwriting process democratic.
But it’s the music of Menomena that makes it a band that you can instantly like. At least half a dozen of the 11 songs on Mines are about tortured or tormented love. The lyrics are honest, simple and intelligent and the vocals come straight from the heart. On TAOS, the band sings: “Oh I’ll bet I know what you like/ at least think I know what you might/ I’m not the most cocksure guy/ but I get more bold with every smile/ so please, show me your teeth, I’ll show mine/ I sure hope our P’s and Q’s don’t mind/cause I’ve been alone quite some time/ and I’ve got to scratch this itch of mine/ and I think I know what you know/ I’m not that smooth but I’m not blind.”
For me, Menomena’s Mines was an escape from my relapse into retro oblivion actually. The DVD of the storied Blind Faith concert in Hyde Park that I referred to in the beginning was interesting to watch — particularly the first part (before the actual concert) where the back stories of each of its three super members — Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Rick Grech – was recounted but the concert itself seemed to lack passion and left me a bit cold. The Zappa album — although I played it a couple of times — seemed stale and old (well, Willie the Pimp and Peaches en Regalia brought back some memories of growing up in the 1970s but that was about all). The NRPS album I liked but was it because most of the numbers were quick and around just three minutes? I wonder.
Three to Tango
1. Vampire Weekend’s White Sky: It gets a Basement Jaxx treatment to make it dancefloor friendly.
2. ReverbNation: The website for artists and fans. AS good place to see what’s hot and where.
3. Cassette tapes: Are they back? Here’s the LA Times take on what you thought was dead and gone.