If there ever was a time to buy a record simply because of its nonsensical title or weird artwork, then this is it. The album artwork for Lemon Memory, the new offering from scuzzy, off-kilter pop-rock band Menace Beach, is a collage of a planetary lemon surrounded by a ring of floating eyes. Weird? Definitely. This same lemony picture, as well as shots of band member Liza Violet eating a real lemon, appears in the music video to Maybe We’ll Drown, the first song released off the album. Nonsensical? Maybe not… In an interview with Dork magazine, band member Ryan Needham explains the origin of this lemon obsession: “When we went on holiday we took a few books with us, and one was called Mysterious Cults. There’s a bit about curses and to wish someone bad luck you can chop a lemon up, tie it in a bag and bury it on the property of the person you want to curse. I remember when we found at the house we used to live in in Derby a bag of 15-20 lemons on the doorstep. Loads of bad shit happened there. That was a bit of a jumping off point for the album, and I got a bit carried away with it.”
So, cursed by lemons… still weird, but we’ll roll with it.
Lemon Memory is Menace Beach’s second album, following up from 2015’s Ratworld. However, it doesn’t feel like a sophomore album, if we take ‘sophomore album’ to mean a make-or-break moment for a band where they must prove that their debut was not merely a fluke –we know that Menace Beach can sustain the quality of their music because since their inception in 2012, they’ve given us enough EPs on top of the albums to prove it. The only two permanent band members, Liza Violet and Ryan Needham, are no newbies to the music scene either, being members of Department M and Komakino respectively. Couple that with the fact that the other band members are constantly changing, and we can see that Menace Beach is about having the confidence to share musical experiments with the world in real time, thus putting the fun back into professional music-making, rather than only chugging out albums and not showing what happens in between.
This notion of fun is reflected in the opening line of whimsical opening track Give Blood: “Why d’you always sing about death?” This could be a tongue-in-cheek message to other bands to lighten up and not take themselves so seriously, or an assertion of Menace Beach’s identity as a more light-hearted band than some.
The album has a different flavour to Ratworld, giving way to sensitive and hypnotic sounds that we have not previously heard, as well as a prominent vocal role for Liza Violet, so that she now shares singing time equally with Needham. These changes are explained by the much bigger role that Liza Violet took in shaping the songs for this album. The two voices gel surprisingly well, with Violet’s ethereal tones (perfectly showcased on the song Owl) floating over and between Needham’s bouncing vocals.
The music is sparse, like their previous work: you can pretty much identify each instrumental layer and each one taken by itself is really very simple. It is sparse in a positive way, though – the listener is given room to manoeuvre around the song rather than being suffocated in a melee of sounds. Sludgy guitar riffs just about hold the layers together, like a piece of string around a tattered suitcase, giving the album an anti-perfectionist, spontaneous feel.
Title track Lemon Memory is a treat – the combination of the chord sequence and the vocal melody has a sad, wistful feel to it that hits me right in the gut every time. Elsewhere, Can’t Get A Haircut is a prime example of some classic Menace Beach techniques, the first being the ‘guitar-riff-is-literally-copying-the-vocal-melody’ trick, which might sound lazy on paper, but it works. The second is the languid, hypnotic solo with the chugging drum beat – instrumentals on this album are a time for indulgence rather than a time for ramping up the energy. And it’s not boring at all; if these instrumentals were mazes then I would happily get lost in them.
Despite the comically strange story behind the album title, it isn’t all lighthearted – Maybe We’ll Drown’s chorus is a continuous repetition of “maybe we’ll drown / maybe we’ll all drown.” The sinister words are disguised underneath the sickly sweet melody. Later on, Sentimental features the words, “Sentimental? I don’t think so / It’s been a long year for the weirdos.” Once again, the driving drums and poppy chords stray your attention away from Needham’s vocals. Finally, on closing track Hexbreaker II, Violet whines, “I lost my mind / I want to die” in her deceptively saccharine voice. Intentional or not, these subliminal messages seem to me like a commentary on the dire political situation that the world is currently in – we really are drowning, and 2016 really was a long year. It’s a shame that we can’t use some lemony spells to make it all better, really…