Menomena @ Webster Hall, 11-10-07
I don't really get chills. Sometimes maybe in deep winter or when I contract the SARS or if I'm watching that pivotal moment in Mr. Holland's Opus when Richard Dreyfus is singing to his deaf son Cole. Point is, it doesn't happen too often. My critical faculties require me to be statue-stony and objective, and not mush out the first time a band busts out a plaintive violin solo or a battalion of Scottish terriers wearing kilts and Balmorals.
And yet there I was in the front row for Menomena's set tamping down the frosty tingles spidering through my skin. All through the concert I'd been waiting to hear "Rotten Hell," my favorite song of theirs, while secretly hoping that they'd save it for last. It'd make the ideal closer, I thought--soaring and hopeful, elegiac and resigned. With its lines "Wading through this mess together/ Hand in hand, shoulder to shoulder," it has the singalong unity of an indie Kumbaya. But the next lines, "Some may stumble/ Some may fall behind" suggests the crueler Darwinian dualities behind the album title, Friend and Foe.
Sure enough, Menomena did perform "Rotten Hell" as their finale. But being the resolute overachievers they are, they also brought out a ten-person choir to accompany them for the last three songs. It could've been kitschy or winky or Sufjan-y, but the choir (spontaneously christened Shimmer Planet by Justin Harris) added a potent layer. For "Rotten Hell," a song about survival of the fittest, they sounded like mourners in a Greek chorus. They were the townspeople, the neighbors the bereaved, the fallen. So yeah, chill city.
It was the obvious apex of my evening, but like both of the band's full-lengths, there wasn't a weak moment to be found. Menomena thrives on consistency, a workmanlike competency. They reminded of their former tourmates, The National, in that they were consummately entertaining and winningly affable, guys who aren't outward showmen but deliver sharp, smart shows. In other words, Menomena = three friendly giants.
Other highlights of the show included their performances of "Evil Bee" and "Wet and Rusting." Both songs gained an extra hunger, a palpable pining, as all three members joined in on the choruses. I'm still not sure whether I prefer the live versions or the album though. Since so much of the album is about dehumanized humanity and being trapped, there's a certain metaphorical power to the flatness and imprisonment of the recorded format. Hearing my weak laptop speakers emit a prayer like "Oh to be a machine, oh to be wanted" is kind of special. But then, standing there in person that night, being two more hands in the choir of applause, feeling washed over by the waves of music, proved just as special. Just as likely to send icicles through your veins and up your spine.
* MP3: "Rotten Hell" - Menomena from Friend and Foe
* MP3: "Wet and Rusting" - Menomena from Friend and Foe [Buy it]
* Also: Mancino's Mike Grimes on Menomena @ Webster Hall