Menomena writes knotty, puzzle-like chamber-pop songs that scan as pleasant, but reveal harsher, gnarled truths on closer inspection. Oscillating between a cheeky grin and a brooding stare, they’re not always the easiest band to make sense of, and Friday night’s set at the Music Hall Of Williamsburg was indicative of their occasionally perplexing aesthetic, a style based in obfuscating big emotions and subtle neurosis in music filled equally with hooks and digressions. Though the Portland-based group has been chiseled down from a trio to a duo after the departure of Brent Knopf to form Ramona Falls, they took the stage as a robust, cluttered five-piece. Instead of slimming down, they’ve bulked up.
Before we could find out what the Knopf-less Menomena would sound like as a live act, we were treated to a bracing, inventive set from Sydney math-rock group PVT. It was immediately apparent why the experimental trio would open for Menomena: They have a similar interest in building songs piece by piece then letting them fall apart at will. Sporting an intimidating pompadour, production wizard Dave Miller began most songs with a sample or a beat, which would then be complimented by a vocal part or a jagged guitar riff from Richard Pike, before drummer Laurence Pike would join in with a rhythm that worked against the established pace of the song, sending each piece into a syncopated tailspin. It was thrilling to watch, and though the group may have struck some of the audience as too cold or cerebral, their melodies were surprisingly resilient and danceable, like OMD reimaginied by a team of art-rock scientists from MIT.
The mathematical precision continued with Menomena’s set, opening with “Muscle’n Flo,” the opening track off the group’s acclaimed 2007 record Friend And Foe. The crowd’s visceral reaction to the song indicated a common theme for the night: People love Friend And Foe. People really, really love Friend And Foe. Though the band has released two albums since that record—2010’s modest, tension-filled Mines and this year’s anguished, psycho-drama-packed Moms — they model their setlist in a way that suggests they know the anthems (“Rotten Hell,” “The Pelican”) that fans come for and they know how to place them at the perfect moments to keep the energy from lagging.
It’s not that the new material doesn’t have its brooding charms. Songs like the wounded, toe-tapping “Plumage” and the anguished, harrowing “Pique” proved that even though Moms is a darker, more reflective album, that doesn’t mean the band can’t transform the tracks into boisterous bursts of abstract art-pop. With pony-tailed singer/guitarist/part-time-saxophonist Justin Harris fighting a nagging sore throat throughout the evening and his partner Danny Seim behind the drum set all night, it was often up to the rest of the band (guitarist Matt Dabrowiak, multi-instrumentalist Holcombe Waller and multi-instrumentalist/Sideshow-Bob/Malcolm-Gladwell-lookalike Paul Alcott) to buttress each song with extra musical bells and whistles (and even a recorder at one point). Like PVT, Menomena has a keen understanding of how to exploit the percussive possibilities of every instrument, whether they’re sending blasts of sax into the front row, scraping an acoustic guitar to create an odd looping sound or just bashing away in a slightly bemused imitation of prog-rock excess.
That sense of perpetual bemusement is one part of the whole Menomena package that can be hard to process. Despite the heavy themes addressed in many of the songs— Moms in particular is a searing examination of origins both mythical and biogical— the band can’t help but go for the goofy joke ever once in a while. You only need to watch their videos, look at their song titles (“Don’t Mess With Latex”) or listen closely to their lyrics (“I once was tragically hip and beautifully fine/Now my beautiful hips are tragically wide”) to see the playful, at times irritating, comic energy at work. In concert those eccentricities made more sense to me as I watched the band interact on stage, riffing on things like why Donald Duck never wears pants and making self-conscious references about the cheesy “vamp while you introduce each band member with a solo” thing. Their humor is a natural outgrowth of their personalities, and given the difficulty the band seems to have in crafting these records, it was good to know they can still make each other laugh, even if the audience wasn’t always in on the joke.