CONCERT REVIEW No Complaints at Menomena, IllinoisA Critic’s Worst Nightmare

Menomena with Illinois

Paradise Rock Club

Friday, Nov. 9, 2007

It is so so so hard for me to write a live review of a band I really love. Generally I won’t request press passes for my absolute favorites so I can actually enjoy the music without scrutinizing its presentational flaws or departures from album orchestrations. Well, friends, I guess I botched this one, because last weekend, on a PR company’s dime, I saw two fantastic bands play in Boston. And because they were so fantastic, I followed them to New York the following night.

I had an unbelievable time at both shows. They were probably the best live sets I’ve seen all year. So why have I been unable to formulate my thoughts coherently until now, 7:36 a.m. on the morning of my deadline, after struggling to write all night? I took copious notes, so what’s keeping me back from typing up all the thoughts and connections I dreamed up on my memo pad?

Well, all critics have axe-envy; that is, we secretly want to front our favorite rock bands. Some reviewers may come across as cool, collected, and passive individuals who judiciously apply criticism to areas where it’s required. Wrong. Writers are vampires. We want to cut musicians down to validate our careers behind desks (as opposed to on stages). We want to inflate our egos by putting ourselves above the musicians we so slavishly worship, even if only for one periodical. Only after all of this bloodsucking can we put on an air of hipness. And herein lies my epigraph-ile dysfunction: will I seem completely and totally lame if I tell you I have no real complaints with Menomena’s and Illinois’ performances at Paradise Rock Club last Friday?

I’d seen Menomena twice before last weekend. The first time I saw them was at Bowery Ballroom on saxophonist/bassist/guitarist/vocalist Justin Harris’ birthday, and the other time was at the South Street Seaport, which boasted one of the largest audiences I’ve seen. Both times they seemed to either suffer from or be blessed by lack of a constant tempo throughout songs. Drummer/vocalist Danny Seim increased or slowed the speed depending upon his interpretations of the moment, and this made for uniquely dynamic renditions. Songs could wind up twice as slow as on the album or end up faster than I believed possible.

Everything seemed to go Seim’s way on Friday, however. The set consisted largely of tracks from this year’s Friend and Foe (though they never seem to want to play one of my favorites, “Air Aid”) and Seim navigated each number with incredible force and consistency. Though I’d loved Menomena shows in the past, I’d never seen them so absolutely tight before, and the trio soaked the audience’s energy right up. “Where’ve you been all our lives, Boston? We’ve been here a number of times and it’s never been that good,” remarked Harris halfway through the show, visibly sweating.

Highlights included “The Pelican,” during which Seim stumbled around on stage singing into a nonexistent microphone as though possessed by some higher musical force — for all I know, he was. “Wet and Rusting” also sounded great in a live setting; it had a little bit of a harder edge than on the CD but was just as haunting. And I can’t leave out keyboardist/guitarist/vocalist Brent Knopf’s use of an EBow on I Am the Fun Blame Monster! track “Strongest Man in the World.”

Openers Illinois captured the audience just as well as the act they supported and sounded almost nothing like What the Hell Do I Know?, which I (positively) reviewed a few weeks ago. Many of the songs they played were new and will come out with their new CD set for February release.

Illinois was joined by Harris on sax for two numbers, the first of which featured a heavy kick drum on the downbeat and banjo as aggressive as a drunken brawler. They also used him on EP track “Nose Bleed”; the sax gave the song a more eclectic and funky feel than the dirty crawl of the recorded version. The performance of “Bad Day” was a real ear-opener. I was able to hear the quasi-rap song’s words for the first time ever, and I’ve got to tell you, Illinois front-man Chris Archibald is a pretty funny lyricist. He was just as funny when he painted “MENOMENA” on his chest and came out during their encore with a mask made of styrofoam tied to his face.

Menomena and Illinois will continue to tour for the next week. They’ll split up and end in Portland and Philly — their hometowns, respectively — before getting into studios to record new albums.