In Hear This, The A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week, we’re picking songs that saw an artist bounce back after releasing a dud of a record.
There’s a different kind of thrill that comes from the first moment you drop the needle on an artistically experimental band than the one experienced from hearing the first moments of, say, a new Bad Religion album. With the latter, you know more or less exactly what you’re going to get, even if the actual quality of the songs themselves still fluctuates within those parameters. (Let’s not put out any more The New Americas, guys.) But when a group transforms not just its sounds but also its instruments, styles, and most other aspects of the entire package from record to record, the sense of uncertainty can be almost as exciting as the discovery of the latest reinvention.
Right up until it’s not, of course. That was the main problem with Under An Hour, the sophomore album from Portland-based art-rock group Menomena, which went from unknown to internationally acclaimed based on the success of its debut LP, I Am The Fun Blame Monster! A maelstrom of swirling and improvised loops welded to guitars, drums, horns, and more, the band had a knack for making deeply experimental music sound accessible, knowing just when to layer in addictive hooks and catchy vocal melodies atop the angular grooves that were the backbone of its output.
But even with unreasonably high expectations, Under An Hour barely qualifies as a Menomena album, and definitely didn’t do the group any favors among fans eagerly awaiting what it would do next. The album, such as it is, consists of three lengthy instrumental tracks (adding up to, yes, just under 60 minutes) composed for a dance troupe called the Monster Squad, each one accompanying a different routine and titled according to materials used in each dance: “Water,” “Flour,” and “Light.” Droning in places, sparse and rhythmic in others, the compositions lose something in the translation to a music-only medium, rendering them inessential as an album, if interesting as an experiment.
Thankfully, this was a detour, not a main road toward the future of Menomena. When the group roared back in January 2007 with a proper follow-up album, Friend And Foe, listeners were immediately dropped back into the swirling churn of one of the most ambitious and impressive art-rock groups of the new century. From the opening strains of leadoff track “Muscle’n Flow” to the final strains of piano on the wistful and elegiac closer “West,” the band took everything from its first record, threw it out, and rebuilt its sound and style from the ground up, retaining only those potent grooves and soaring melodies. Everything else felt like a band discovering instruments for the first time and putting them to new use. The album’s dark and throbbing midpoint is “Weird,” a track that delivers a staticky and jagged drum pattern, a bass sound almost blurred to incoherence by its thickness, and interjecting horns and strings. “There’s no love lost that I can’t find again, my dear friend,” goes the refrain, and the bleakness of the surrounding music and lyrics makes it more a threat than a promise. The group got better on each subsequent release, even after losing Brent Knopf following Mines. Menomena hasn’t released an album since 2012, but its overall output is nigh-unassailable—perhaps that wouldn’t have happened with an (almost) hour-long detour.