Menomena Scale Back Sonic Experiments Live

Late last Wednesday night, Justin Harris’ bass guitar slipped out of his hands, bringing Menomena’s set at T.T. the Bear’s Place to an inglorious and momentary halt.

“You won’t see Carlos D doing that!” Harris instantly quipped, alluding to his Gucci-goth counterpart in Interpol, the indie darlings who headlined at Boston’s Orpheum Theatre that night (See story, Page B10).

Harris had a point. But then again, how often do you see the über-precise Carlos D discard his bass mid-song to play a rough saxophone riff or nimbly manipulate a set of keyboard loops with his feet? Menomena has always been a more claustrophobic, oddball project—and, as they showed last week, it’s had a most liberating effect on their music.

The Portland, Ore.-based trio recorded its 2003 debut, “I Am the Fun Blame Monster,” using “Deeler,” a proprietary computer program written entirely by Brent Knopf, their giddy keyboardist. Knopf’s ace coding allowed the band to compose complex pop suites by looping and sequencing live improvisations into tricky recursive structures. The components of its instrumental arrangements swooped in and fell out of trapdoors, constantly intertwining and unraveling like the title’s dorkily brilliant anagram (“The First Menomena Album”).

Of course, such a technical approach can’t quite be replicated in a live setting, so Menomena were forced to scale back at T.T.’s, resulting in a surprisingly low ratio of gee-whiz effects and sequencing to good old-fashioned rockin’ out.

“Fun Blame Monster” is full of double-jointed, intricate sonic moments seemingly made possible only by agile programming, but many of those highlights were played almost flawlessly on stage. This may sound terribly rockist, but you just don’t expect to find bass chops as funky as Harris’ or limb-cracking beats like those meted out by drummer Danny Seim in a band whose recorded output relies so heavily on silicon.

Harris’ sax heroics made a spiky take on “The Late Great Libido” soar, and a tipsy-gaited “Oahu” dashed the car-ad ambience of its album version. The stop-and-start guitars and propulsive horns of the night’s one new song recalled Kill the Moonlight-era Spoon crossed with the best aspects of Born to Run-era E Street Band.

Menomena occasionally sounded naked or incomplete outside the safety of the studio, but their best moments last Wednesday showed that sometimes you’ve got to disassemble indie rock to save it.

—Staff writer Simon W. Vozick-Levinson can be reached at vozick@fas.harvard.edu.