Generally speaking, it’s a bad idea to judge a book by its cover. But Menomena has no problem with potential fans judging the band’s music by the cover of its CD. Based in Portland, Ore., the trio considered upwards of 30 ideas for how to package their full-length debut, I Am The Fun Blame Monster! (FILMguerrero, 2004), before settling on a flip-book format.
The group’s latest album, Friend and Foe, takes Menomena’s visual creativity to a new level. The new artwork—a collaboration between band members and famed graphic novelist Craig Thompson (author of Blankets)—is intended to keep both viewer and listener busy for quite some time.
“There’s about a dozen different layers of meaning and concept going on,” says keyboardist Brent Knopf, who, like his band mates, plays several instruments and also sings lead vocals. “There are a lot of other things too. I could go on forever about it, but I don’t want to ruin the secret. There’s a lot of hidden layers and puzzles.”
Knopf stops short of elaborating further, and the mystery only deepens when you pick up the actual record. Like Blame Monster, Friend and Foe contains no information whatsoever on the band itself, or where and how the material was recorded. Even Menomena’s official press statement from Barsuk Records declares that the label knows little about the band and how they work.
If any of this smacks of gimmick—or a contrived ploy to create a calculated aura of mystique—think again. Knopf claims that he and his band mates simply see aesthetics as an integral part of the listening experience.
The visual presentation, he says, is “basically us just trying to respect the fact that, when you’re giving someone music, part of what you’re giving them is the physical side.”
Which begs the question: How did Menomena manage to convince two independent labels—FILMguerrero and Barsuk Records—to shell out for such involved packaging?
“The art comes first,” Knopf asserts.
According to Knopf, the band’s insistence on sticking to its aesthetic guns early on actually helped solidify its sense of mission and commitment to its music. Initially, Menomena released Blame Monster on its own, flip book and all, before entering into courtship with labels.
“We were so turned off by the approach of these labels toward us,” says Knopf. One label, he recalls, met with the band but turned down the flip-book idea outright. “So we were like, ‘I guess there’s no sense in talking to you anymore.’”
What might seem like a precious, naively uncompromising stance from a young band takes on new perspective as Knopf explains the group’s feeling at the time.
“I’m not going to be an advocate or apologist for artists who have no conception of a cost-versus-benefit way of looking at things,” he says with a laugh. “But what offended me about that label is that they just assumed. They didn’t even bother to ask us how much it would cost. They’d already ruled it out without doing the research. But instead we ran into this, in my opinion, ignorance about what’s meaningful and why we’re doing this in the first place.”
Whatever the cost of the artwork, Friend and Foe actually fits neatly into a standard jewel case, with an inlay card of only two panels and four colors. Yet, with creative use of cutouts, the album is Menomena’s answer to the late ‘60s and early ‘70s heyday of album art.
As for the music itself, the band seems to have its eyes focused squarely on the future. When Menomena first emerged in 2003, scene stalwarts such as Shipping News and the Dismemberment Plan were putting out albums that shirked genre conventions and took fans into then-uncharted territory. Finally, it seemed as if indie rock—which had virtually become synonymous with a specific set of constrained musical parameters, (and often tired from years of overuse)—might actually be evolving.
Friend and Foe delivers on that initial promise and suggests an exciting road ahead. And the album is likely to attract scene-savvy aficionados, new converts, and those who couldn’t care less about categorization alike. With an original flair and expansive palette at its fingertips, Menomena concocts refreshingly cliché-free music.
[Saby Reyes-Kulkarni is a freelance music writer based in Rochester, N.Y.]
who: Menomena with Illinois
what: Post indie-rock
where: Orange Peel
when: Thursday, Nov. 1 (9 p.m. $14. www.theorangepeel.net or 225-5851)