In spite of its painstaking construction, Menomena's debut, I Am The Fun Blame Monster!, felt kind of flippant, as if the band put more elbow grease into building melodies than prying open its own soul. That wasn't a bad thing, though: Blame Monster was moody enough without getting tripped up in heartstrings. But on the disc's follow-up, Friend And Foe, Menomena has opened itself up a bit, exploring themes of weakness, confusion, and loss while complicating its already-tangled arrangements. Recipe for a letdown, or blueprint for a breakthrough? Well, a little bit of both.
The disc kicks off with "Muscle'n Flo," which sounds more like a string of codas than an intro. Amid the assembled rubble of sampled instruments and massive drums, however, the trio wrings some celestial angst out of its harmonies—not to mention a streak of intimacy that's as prosaic as the music is fantastic. Better yet, the band's trademark method—a seamless suture of sequencing and real-time playing—reaches an awkward yet transcendent grace by the end of the tune's eternal four and a half minutes. It's not so much a rollercoaster as a demolition bumper-car ride, and exhilarating as it is, the abrupt about-faces in tempo and texture get a little too gleefully nauseating after a while. But the album's pulse smoothes out during the delicate "Wet And Rusting" and "Rotten Hell," a straightforward piano ditty that hints at The Beatles while wallowing in a fetching melancholy.
Friend's best song, however, is its only blatantly derivative one. At first, "Air Aid" is a dead ringer for Thom Yorke experimenting with Morphine, but it soon settles into a cleaner, crisper version of TV On The Radio. There's a parallel here: Menomena's 2004 debut was every bit as radical as TV On The Radio's from the same year, and both bands' sophomore full-lengths—excellent as they are—are merely coasting on the shock of the new. Now that Menomena's technique feels less jarring and daring, though, the group has done a decent job of pouring its euphoric weirdness into bruised, beautiful songcraft.