May 31, 2006

Minmae “Le Grand Essor de la Maison du Monstre”

Conceived in the late '90s as an outlet for Sean Brooks' solo four-track recordings, Minmae has spent the last four years operating as an actual band that records in actual studios. Their last three albums (True Love, Ya Te Vas and I'd Be Scared, Were You Still Burning?) were marked not only by an increase in fidelity, but also by increases in musicianship and songcraft. This is not to say that Minmae transformed into a pop band. Brooks' voice is still too croaky to properly navigate the melodies he writes. However, no one who identifies with the Silver Jews lyric “All my favorite singers couldn't sing” can hold that against him. It was best for listeners to simply thank their deity of choice that Brooks' songs weren't obscured by hiss and distortion anymore. In short, those albums served as modern manna for everyone whose favorite records were released by Matador and Drag City 15 years ago --- yours truly included. Unfortunately, Minmae's latest album Le Grand Essor de la Maison du Monstre gives me the impression that their quality control might be slipping.

There are a number of songs on this album that rank with the band's best work. On the ominous intro to “Everyone Knows That Jesus Wore a Chain,” Brooks' fat synthesized bass line overpowers drummer Chris Calvert's busy shuffle. During the bridge, Brooks switches to his trademark jangling guitar and kicks the music into high gear. The song then reaches a distortion-drenched crescendo, during which he sings the album's strongest hook: “Sickeningly, sickeningly, sickeningly, sickeningly sweet.” You got that right, brother! “I Was at Johnny's and He Played Phil Ochs” is a funny two-chord ballad in which Brooks chides gutter punks who don't tip when dining out. “Let It Ride” is a countrified love song in which Brooks does his best David Berman impression, right down to the concise imagery (“My left arm's darker than my right”) and sardonic gender politics (“Do you need me, baby?/'No, I'm fine'/What exactly does that mean?”). “(To Edit) Quickfingerz” is a bouncy ditty about anger's role in the creative process that morphs into a long, albeit exciting, instrumental jam.

Unfortunately, “Quickfingerz” isn't the only song on Le Grand Essor that goes on a tangent, which brings me to my main qualm with the album. At least a third of its songs run out of ideas at around the three-minute mark, only to overstay their welcome with long stretches of pointless repetition. If you're going to begin your album with a nine-and-a-half minute song, you'd better make it interesting. Unfortunately, the last six minutes of “Cold Room, So. Pacific” find the band hammering away at the same chord, with no variation to keep listeners from dozing off. Brooks spends the second halves of the six-minute “Zero Sum” and the eight-minute “Winking Lass” doing little more than abusing his effects pedals. Even his earliest recordings stopped short of such wanton self-indulgence, which makes these songs even more disappointing. It's good to know that after years of playing together, Brooks and his rhythm section are finally comfortable enough to start jamming, but that still doesn't keep Le Grand Essor from being a 55-minute-long album that should have only lasted for 40.

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