The saxophone, by and large, is an instrument that should be used sparingly — if at all — in rock ‘n’ roll music. Sure, there are a few examples of inspired saxophony in the rock canon: Clarence Clemons cannot be denied, nor can Dana Colley of Morphine, and the rousing saxophone lead in Gerry Rafferty’s soft-rock masterpiece “Baker Street” is one for the ages. Portland band Menomena, headlining the KYRS Music Fest this weekend, is a more contemporary example of a band that uses the saxophone to great effect.
Formerly an instrument-switching trio, Menomena was shaved down to a duo before the recording of its most recent album, 2012’s Moms. Founding member Brent Knopf left the band to concentrate on his solo project Ramona Falls. The band’s other two principals, Danny Seim and Justin Harris, forged ahead, and though Knopf’s absence is certainly noticeable (and missed), Menomena still manages to make quite a racket. Harris plays a variety of instruments on stage, including the aforementioned saxophone in its baritone and tenor incarnations. The sax is a dramatic instrument, and Harris uses it expertly to enhance particular moments, rather than define the personality of Menomena’s compositions. Seim’s drumming is precise, and with the help of MIDI samples and triggers, the two-piece ensemble assembles complex, polyrhythmic structures that showcase layered melodies and beautifully articulated counterpoint.
Moms was written collaboratively by Seim and Harris, with the overarching theme being — in a refreshing display of literalism — mothers. Seim lost his mother in 1994, and Harris was raised by a single mother. The lyrics are deeply personal and revealing, each songwriter taking his own unique approach to the thematic material and fitting it into a coherent narrative about loss and anger and confusion and forgiveness. It’s a compelling album that, despite Knopf’s absence, fits snugly into Menomena’s excellent body of work.
The name Menomena presumably comes from the song “Mah Nà Mah Nà” by Italian composer Piero Umiliani, memorably used in The Muppet Show as well as a particularly funny scene that opens an episode of the British version of The Office. The band itself plays coy with the name, sometimes attributing its provenance to a compound of the words “men” and “phenomena.” Whatever the case, it rolls off the tongue like a sweet sax riff.
Menomena plays KYRS Music Fest with Finn Riggins, Jonathan Warren & the Billy Goats, Cathedral Pearls, Soul Proprietor, Real Life Rockaz, Old Bear Mountain, Shebear and BBBBandits • Sat, July 13, from noon to 11 pm • Glover Field • 1300 W. Main Ave. • $15 • All-ages • kyrsmusicfest.com