Last week sports writers began releasing their mid-season picks for front-runners in the NBA’s yearly awards races. The hot names of the season were featured on everyone’s lists (Blake Griffen, Derrick Rose, Kevin Love, Tom Thibodeau). What you won’t find on these glorified popularity contests is one mention of the San Antonio Spurs. Despite having the best record in the NBA, you won’t see any Manu Ginobili’s for MVP, no Gregg Popovich for Coach of the Year, no Richard Jefferson for Most Improved Player. Yes, once again the Spurs are the elephant in the room that somehow continues to get no respect. I guess that’s what you get for being perpetually good.
The same can be said for Portland-based band Menomena. Menomena came out with “Mines” in 2010, and despite critical praise, I have yet to find it on any year end lists. Then again, I can’t point fingers. I got “Mines” back in August and listened to it one time. Once. And the one time I gave it a chance it was at 6:30 in the morning during my morning commute (that’s code for “zombie drive mode”). As a result, my response was “Eh”. Not hate, not love, just “eh”.
Then a couple of weeks ago I ran across a news story saying that mulit-instrumentalist Brent Knopf was leaving Menomena. It didn’t strike me as shocking because of Brent Knopf – I don’t know who he is nor do I know how much influence he had on the band’s music – but the sight of the band’s name made me realize, “Holy crap. Menomena came out with an album last year.” I’d completely forgotten about “Mines” after my driving-dead listening session.
Last weekend I gave “Mines” my second listen, and midway through the first track “Queen Black Acid” I wanted to pound a pick ax through my skull. How had I let this golden nugget slip down the shaft? Maybe it was the year of incredible music that overshadowed the subtler sounds of Menomena? (At least that’s what I’m telling myself.) “Mines” isn’t going to beg you to explore and enjoy it’s confines like their last effort “Friend and Foe” did, pulling you by the shirt tails on a rumpus amusement ride. This time around, you have to commit to entering it’s dark corridors with an open-mind and a focused ear.
And once I gave it the attention it deserved, a new world opened up to me as “I walked right in through the rabbit’s door and walked right into the rabbit’s hole” (“Queen Black Acid”). In their past work the band has succeeded at presenting multi-faceted songs filled with surprising twists and turns. The twists are still here, but you’ll miss your turn if you’re not paying attention, whether it is the spooky owl hiding behind the stalactites of “Dirty Cartoons” or the endless echoing reverb of “INTIL”. It’s no longer about finding the next way to embellish a song; the band’s focus is now simply on the song (the rest is only there to fill in the shadows).
How did “Dirty Cartoons” not make my Best Tracks of 2010 list? I’m ashamed:
It’s not just the music that requires you to focus. Menomena’s lyrics on “Mine” are filled with strange imagery and emotional confessions that most would hide away in their inner catacombs until death. Take “Tithe” for example, a song that at one moment is both hilarious and unique with Justin Harris singing “spending the best years of a childhood horizontal on the floor like a bobsled minus the teamwork and the televised support” and then moments later as you think it’s all fun and games he shifts gears, ominously repeating “and nothing sounds appealing”. But Harris is at his most heartfelt and candid on “Oh Pretty Boy, You’re Such a Big Boy” where he battles with old age and a cold heart:
“I’m not so brave
and I fear, oh I fear, I’m showing my age
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”
I now realize I shouldn’t be upset with the talking heads of the basketball world. Just like me with my first listen to “Mines”, they see highlights of the Spurs and think “Eh”, but if they’d give them the attention they deserve, they’d see the genius that is Gregg Popovich, the creativity that is Manu Ginobili, and the rock solid asfsf that is Tim Duncan. Once I listened to this album the way it was meant to be heard, I realized that Menomena has created a solitary confine for listeners to hide within for 50 minutes. Let’s just hope that all Brent Knopf is taking with him is his multi-instrumental playing of the cowbell and the kazoo.