[Album Review] Menomena – Friend and Foe (2007)

If you haven’t listened to I Am The Fun Blame Monster!, the self-produced debut album from Menomena, then listen to it. Listen to it now. The album is littered with hits that saw the Portland-based rockers become the hottest upcoming heirs to the indie kingdom in 2003. But let me take you forward 4 years – it’s 2007 and Friend and Foe has just been released. How does it hold up?

Truth be told, Friend and Foe is a decent album. The album contains the full-package that is to be expected from Menomena after their successful debut material. The brilliant production is there, as is the experimentation, with some innovative loops. Songs jump from baritone brass sections to fully fledged gospel organs to distorted guitars – sometimes all at the same time. Throughout, composed bass lines and pounding drums keep the songs together allowing Justin Harris and Danny Seim to sing almost unrestrained.

Take ‘Wet and Rusting’, for me the strongest song on the album. The song begins with isolated vocals echoing in the darkness against a solitary piano loop; “it’s hard to take risks, with a pessimist” the singer declares. We feel the frustration, worthlessness and loneliness that is communicated. Suddenly, an acoustic guitar weighs in – a light in the darkness that dispels the shadows of pessimism in favour of optimism. Yet the piano is still present. Feelings of optimism inspired by the guitar are hindered by ever-present gloom. “I’m trying to be faithful,” concedes Harris dejectedly.

This song is an example of what defines the hits on this album; its ability to layer sounds and feelings to create a result that contrasts and contradicts yet creates a whole product.

Other songs of interest are ‘The Pelican’, which leads in with a piano composition reminiscent to one found in a Japanese RPG on the Super Nintendo and creates an atmosphere of impeding doom, and ‘Air Aid’, it’s composition very reminiscent of the music from rock-giants-at-the-time Elbow. The agitated vocals, coupled with the build in volume and speed, create an intense feeling that turns a harmony into somewhat of an anthem. The song itself has all the charm of a TV crime drama soundtrack – it’s dark, distorted and, above all, mysterious. The fact the subject matter deals with a suicide is therefore not surprising.

Yet after the dreary, big band blues sound of ‘Weird’ is over, we enter a lull in the album’s excitement.

‘Rotten Hell’ is a radical departure from the innovative, captivating nature of previous songs and is a forgettable indie piano-led slump. ‘Running’ is nothing special as the middle of the album becomes crushed under the weight of a strong first-half. I actually skipped ‘My My’ – it felt like a rejected Radiohead B-side. ‘Ghostship’ and ‘West’ play out the album with efforts that wouldn’t have made it onto I Am The Fun Blame Monster.

Perhaps for this reason ‘Boyscout’n’ – with its whistling and saxophones that represents something of a dormant volcano erupting voraciously into a beautiful mess of cymbal crashes and distorted dual-guitars by the time the song reaches it’s conclusion – stands out as it offers a glimpse of recapturing the mysterious, energetic allure of the album’s first half.

It’s a shame the second half of the album is somewhat unmemorable to me. Yet that said, the album is decent overall. Despite the weaker songs, they don’t feel out of place. Don’t get me wrong, they’re still listenable and well-put together; they just don’t hold a candle to ‘Muscle’n Flo’, ‘Weird’ and ‘Wet and Rusting’.

When listening to the album, I found myself drawn to listen to the other big bands of the era. ‘Air Aid’ was somewhat reminiscent of the work of Editors with due thanks to the baritone vocals. ‘Wet and Rusting’ captures the elements of pop that made Foster the People’s Torches (2011) so inviting. However, unfortunately for Menomena, I find myself returning to An End Has a Start by Editors more than this album.

So with this in mind, the album is a good gateway into the music of the era. The experimental nature of the production pays off – it certainly is innovative. I just feel the bands the music sounds like in places did a better job in those areas. With a strong start but weak conclusion, the album is a decent effort but not one I find myself returning to often – bar perhaps one or two songs. Still, it’s a good listen and one to check out.

Verdict: 6.8 out of 10

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