By Todd Simmons
There must be a band-developing compound somewhere in Portland, Oregon that is churning out aggressively quirky pop rock bands like microbrews at an alarming clip. One of the latest to find national attention is Menomena, a trio of improbably affable yet talented musicians who take turns behind the microphone and take their experimental rock music seriously while promoting it with a self-effacing sense of humor. They landed amidst the schooners and ferries at the annual Seaport Music Festival on Friday the 13th between a club tour of Europe and the Pitchfork Festival in Chicago and seemed genuinely amazed by the turnout of New Yorkers eager to hear their music in person.
“This is by far the largest crowd we’ve ever played in front of,” saxophonist/bassist Justin Harris announced to the sprawling Seaport crowd on Friday with a measure of humble dismay. But anybody who has heard their recent album “Friend and Foe” or tried to get into their sold out Bowery Ballroom stint earlier this year would not be surprised to see the size of the audience. Of course, the free entry at this and many other New York summer shows is appealing but with the bonus of opening act Beat The Devil you get the feeling that the people would’ve been happy to shell out for this one.
“Friend and Foe” is easily one of the most distinctive and inspired albums of the year and has garnered the critical raves that it deserves. The sound is a melding of samplers, piano, saxophone, bass and guitar all anchored by kinetic drumming from gentle giant, Danny Seim. The 6’8” former Kinko’s employee is an amazing sight to behold behind the kit. A storm of arms and legs, he not only manages to propel the sound, but he has an acrobatic ability to change time signatures on a dime, injecting Menomena’s music with the very unpredictability that sets them apart from the pack.
In concert, Harris handled the bulk of the vocals but as usual they all took their turns.
In some ways Menomena is an idiosyncratic blend of early Peter Gabriel, Morphine and The Flaming Lips, but they don’t seem to spring from one particular pop trend. As they’ve consistently done with their creative album art packaging, they have devised a form of pop music that’s a funhouse of melodies that gets more colorful and rich as it unfolds with repeated listenings.
While much of the recent hype out of Portland has centered on the Dandy Warhols, The Decemberists and The Shins, there are plenty of other musicians thriving beneath the radar like James Angell, Pink Martini and The Helio Sequence. Menomena seems poised now to emerge amongst the former. With intricately composed and recorded songs it may have been surprising to hear how deftly they pulled them off in concert. Despite the attention that their looping program (designed by keyboardist/guitarist Brent Knopf) has brought them among studio nerds, they hardly rely on the technology alone. They play with a loose and exuberant demeanor that cannot be written by any program. Menomena is certainly a band on the rise.
In New York City where everything seems to be at least a little (or way) too expensive, savvy music followers look forward to summer as a time to get a windfall in return. With free shows from Coney Island to the Hudson River to Williamsburg’s McCarren Pool, one can do a lot of catching up on entertainment while enjoying the outdoors in the process. The Seaport Festival is one of the more dramatic settings of the lot. People can buy beer or wine and socialize on the boardwalk with boats lurching around in the wake behind the stage and a backdrop of the East River and the lights of Brooklyn Heights. After the show, the crowd can filter back to the subway or continue the party around the pier at the Spiegelworld beer garden, in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge.
Upcoming shows at the Seaport include electronic pioneers Suicide, The National, Camera Obscura, Battles and The Last Town Chorus. Visit seaportmusicfestival.com for more info.