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MENTHOL (Buy CDs by this artist)
Menthol (Capitol) 1995
Danger: Rock Science (unreleased) 1999 (Hidden Agenda) 2002

Menthol was one of several promising new wave-influenced groups that rose from the Chicago / Urbana, Illinois scene of the mid-1990s. Along with the like-minded Smoking Popes, Menthol produce terrific power pop albums, complete with sly references to the slick world of major label record contracts and grimy rock clubs. If they never quite achieve big-time fame, Menthol may have the last laugh just by staying together.

Released during the hangover of second wave grunge, Menthol is a breath of fresh air in the form of punchy guitar gems and winking lyrical asides. On "Dry Heaves (Of the Well-Adorned)," singer Balthazar de Ley laments the pressures of the newly signed rock band: "Go and make 'em proud back at the homestead, son / Go and write the songs that make the city girls come." The world-weary lyrics provide a nice counterpoint to music of songs like the furious "U.S.A. Capable" and the historically dubious but hilarious "Francis Scott Key" ("put away that pad and quill pen!"). The harried prostitution of "Stress Is Best" is a fine allegory for the exploitation of the recording industry. Still, Menthol works best when the trio keeps things light, as in the word association strangeness of "The Ragtime Castratos."

Capitol dropped Menthol without releasing its second album, Danger: Rock Science!, which finally saw the light of day in 2002. Adding a second guitarist, Menthol indulge their deepest Devo fantasies, and the results are glorious, nerdy fun. In addition to warning that rock science should never "fall into the wrong hands," the band sounds like it's having a blast on tracks like the Gary Numan-influenced "Future Shock," the intense, almost metal "New Recruits" and the verbal jousting of "A Bitter Feud." (On the planned Capitol release of Danger: Rock Science!, that song was titled "John Hughes 2000" but changed after the movie director threatened legal action.) Lest folks worry about the seven-odd years between Menthol albums, de Ley allays those fears with a couplet from "Strange Living": "I've been driven / to depend on upon the generosity of old rockaholic women." Lyrically, they're most akin to Pavement, yet for irony-free, energetic new wave rock, Menthol can give Weezer a run for their money. A superb outing and highly recommended.

[Jason C. Reeher]