Ask most people to name famous Dartmouth alumni, and they’ll rattle off the names of some of the most famous artists of the 20th century: Robert Frost, Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel, Keggy the Keg. Despite minor issues (Frost never graduated, Keggy is an anthropomorphic beer keg) they represent the College on the Hill well. Other artists, however, often go overlooked and underappreciated. One such artist is Brent Knopf ’00, guitar, keyboard and glockenspiel player in the up-and-coming indie rock band Menomena.
Despite a name that invokes muppets and telephones, Menomena has managed to progress from a small indie band in Portland, Ore. to a widespread success. After a lot of buzz surrounding their first studio release, “I Am The Fun Blame Monster” (an anagram for “The First Menomena Album”), the band has hit their stride in the past year.
In August of 2006, Menomena signed to Barsuk records, releasing their third studio effort, “Friend & Foe,” in January to great critical acclaim. Called by indie standard-bearer Pitchfork, “the first great indie rock album of the year,” “Friend & Foe” has done nothing but continue the successful path of Menomena.
Knopf plays no small role in this ensemble, making up one third of the band’s members. He is also credited with the development of the Digital Looping Recorder (affectionately called the Deeler), an electronic device that helps create the Menomena’s distinct sound.
Using the Deeler and a microphone, members of the band take turns recording solo riffs over an established beat. These riffs become loops, repeating over and over as the band continues to flesh out the instrumentation of each track. Only after a song has reached maturity through the use of the Deeler do the band members write lyrics, which are then taken to the studio where the track is recorded and mastered without the Deeler.
Said Knopf to Seattle Weekly, “It gives us a bunch of raw material that we can mix together at a later date. We don’t have to decide which parts will make the cut when we’re writing it. It’s hard to be creative and edit at the same time.”
And creative they are. “Friend & Foe” represents a step away from the norms of indie rock, finding a beautiful, balanced, non-formulaic style that continues to please across the album’s 47 minutes. Menomena avoids the rambling, disjointed traps often found by experimental indie rock (see: “Godspeed You Black Emperor!”, “Explosions in the Sky”), finding complex but accessible rhythms and melodies to root their airy vocals.
The album kicks off with a bang. With an aggressive drumbeat, leadoff track “Muscle’n Flo” bounces in and out, aggressive and relaxed at the same time. Huge organ backgrounds do nothing to give away the three-member composition of Menomena, and they compose on a grandiose scale.
On one of the album’s highlights, “Wet and Rusting,” the band members alternate and layer vocal tracks, creating an interesting effect that manages to avoid fighting with itself. Punctuated with horns and drums, “Evil Bee” is another bright spot on the album.
Varied instrumentation and rotating vocalists (all three members voice tracks on the album) prevent the album from falling into a rut. Songs rarely stick with a single theme for the duration, keeping the listener active and involved. With few rough spots, the album is a highly diverse yet strongly cohesive production.
While Menomena may not find mainstream or commercial success with “Friend & Foe,” the album is a significant step in the development of the band. After releasing their first album without a label (they packaged and shipped each CD by hand from their houses), and their second, the experimental and instrumental “Under An Hour,” on a local independent label, Menomena has broken into the big leagues. Only time will tell how “Friend & Foe” is seen 10 years from now, but it very well could be the first great album from a tiny great band.