After listening to Friend and Foe several times, you may still find yourself pondering exactly what to think of it. Perhaps you’ll consider your admiration for the experimental streak that the gentlemen of Menomena exhibit. Perhaps you’ll express some reservations about their kitchen sink approach to instrumentation and arrangement. Perhaps, after some time, you’ll come to accept the disorienting songwriting technique and the quirky, scattershot charm that it aspires to. It wouldn’t be an unreasonable sequence of reactions.
The cause for your concerns might be that they’re quite adept at writing naturally likable pop songs. There is a well-balanced contrast between Brent Knopf’s endearingly naive warble and Justin Harris’ bristly yelp. If you stripped away the layers of guitars, synths, saxophone licks, organs, sleigh bells, and other assorted miscellany, the simple melodies and structures alone could carry an album without much trouble. When Menomena navigate a composition, it often seems that each section within a song is given its own individual set of instrumentation. The first single, ‘Wet and Rusting,’ is a prime example, with a wistful vocal intro giving way to intermittent passages of acoustic strumming, shaker, and glockenspiel. Shortly after, the drums, bass, and piano take over before handing it off to another acoustic passage. With a pair of decent headphones on, every synth embellishment and ancillary guitar line cuts through. This is something to be said for the mix, which was entirely helmed by the band themselves. Some songs, however, can end up feeling somewhat crowded by the overflow of ideas. ‘Air Aid’ is built around a robust rhythm section, but the busy instrumental passages can’t quite justify its duration of nearly five minutes. Instead of attempting to spice up the repetitive groove with more overdubs, the song might have benefited from simply shaving a minute or two off the end.
Fearing that I might have been missing the point, I had to take a little break from the record to get a better perspective on it. In doing so, I found that there are a few crucial elements that tie Friend and Foe together. As it turned out, many of the hooks were strong enough to stay with me long after I laid down the headphones. This led me to the conclusion that it works on several levels. If you listen closely enough to determine each piece of the puzzle, there is a fair amount to sift through and analyze. On the other hand, more casual spins still yield impressive results, as the album’s broadest brush strokes also pack a hearty wallop. Harris’ double-tracked rants kick off both ‘The Pelican’ and ‘Weird,’ conveying sarcastic hostility with convincing aplomb. The band’s tendency to move through rapid changes doesn’t detract from the elegance of the rhythmic and harmonic ideas either. The dense, restless production style serves songs like ‘Evil Bee’ quite well, as it starts off slowly and builds to a frenetic climax. In these cases, Menomena’s work is more akin to a sort of jazz aesthetic, as it explores numerous ways to play a song within a single performance.
As it is, with two stylistically divergent vocalists strolling through a revolving door of timbres and textures, there has to be some constant that provides coherence to temper the maelstrom. Enter Danny Seim’s drums. Pulsing under the thumb of aggressive stereo compression, his robust and oft-syncopated beats form the glue that makes Menomena sound like a band rather than a few guys with a lot of instruments. While they might occasionally use heavy layering as a crutch, they have become extremely proficient at what they do, and the album is punctuated by plenty of revelatory moments.