If you’ve ever wondered what it takes to set West Coast indie kids’ hearts aflutter, the ingredients include equal parts emo(tive) singing/shouting and a Built to Spill sense for congenial musical atmosphere over pop succinctness. Washington state’s Modest Mouse takes an oblique approach towards communicating the most direct of feelings, letting songs dip far away from the red only to come back blaring with energy. Ultimately part of the successful 21st century surge of Northwest-based pop bands (Shins, Decemberists, Death Cab for Cutie, New Pornographers), Modest Mouse is both an acquired taste and an endorsement for creative integrity.
This Is a Long Drive for Someone With Nothing to Think About establishes the group’s knack for dynamic delivery. With Modest Mouse, a verse-chorus-verse approach does not constitute a song. Instead, a series of tangents interchange, while Isaac Brock’s vocals shout, plead, beg and whine with soulful angst. “Tundra/Desert” gives a good sense of what the band is about: After a sliding guitar introduction, Brock sings for the disenchanted youth (“Every planned occupation / Sure fire disappointment up ahead”) before breaking into a kinetic atonal screamfest.
Interstate 8 finds Brock pushing his voice to extremes, as on “All Night Diner,” where he jumps between a gasping shuffle and faux soul music swing. The EP (while it’s album-length, the second half is recorded live) offers a chance for the group to try out different approaches, like the country-tinged “Interstate 8,” and “Sleepwalking (Couples Only Dance Prom Night),” which twists a well-known ’50s instrumental ballad with the band’s own style of crooning.
Modest Mouse is the least worthy of these recordings, as the raspy screaming on “Dirty Fingernails” reaches new levels of listener irritation. Also, there’s very little of the guitar cleverness found on the other releases.
Modest Mouse reaches a peak of its abilities on The Lonesome Crowded West. Songs flash past, one remarkably catchy riff followed suddenly by another equally memorable phrase. “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine” erratically springs between a fast and slow tempo, demented guitar play and anthemic singing staying along for the entire ride. “Lounge (Closing Time)” comes close to being a ska song, with the jumpy guitar riff and quick-shot singing, but elongated pauses insure that it’s an affectation rather than a direction.
Building Nothing Out of Something is an odds-and-ends collection to fulfill Modest Mouse’s contract with Up. Yet the songs here are as good as anything to date, especially on a teetering-on-the-edge of breakdown version of “Interstate 8” and the funky “All Nite Diner.”
The band made the jump to Epic for The Moon & Antarctica. The results of Brock’s attempt to make the case for Modest Mouse’s importance are mixed. From the loose concept of isolation to the inclusion of anthems both raw (“Dark Center of the Universe”) and intricate (the prog-rock-influenced “Stars Are Projectors”) the band projects wary confidence, all set to be designated the Next Big Thing. While it works well in fits and starts, The Moon & Antarctica is too cluttered to be a great album: Brock and company are trying too hard to make it a statement. Standout tracks include the acerbic “I Came as a Rat” and the reverberating shout-along “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes.” “Everything that keeps me together is falling apart,” Brock sings on “3rd Planet.” “I’ve got this thing that I consider my only art: fuckin’ people over.”
Most bands use an EP as a stop-gap measure to keep fans interested. Not Modest Mouse. On Everywhere and His Nasty Parlour Tricks, Brock finds an excuse to be as weird as ever. From the countrified strangeness of “3 Inch Horses, Two Faced Monsters” to the rapid-fire ranting of “So Much Beauty in Dirt,” the EP cuts loose. With the pressure off, Modest Mouse achieves everything that The Moon & Antarctica could have been. The intimate “Night on the Sun” is one of the group’s best tracks.
K issued some early Brock solo / Mouse recordings as Sad Sappy Sucker. “Mice Eat Cheese” is typical of the rawness of a future indie visionary finding his voice, “Woodgrain” is a Pee-wee Herman-style joke, and “BMX Crash” sounds like Guided by Voices 101. Ranging from competent to bizarre, this is for hard-core fans only.
Major labels don’t sign any band — even cult favorites — without some expectation of a return, and Good News for People Who Love Bad News delivers the band’s much-needed hit single, “Float On,” which (perhaps not surprisingly) sounds little like anything in the band’s past. If the song’s good-natured hippie sentiments put the band on the mainstream map, the rest of Good News offers no such consideration. The Pixies-influenced “Bury Me With It” and the cabaret quirkiness of “This Devil’s Workday” prove that Modest Mouse won’t soon abandon their indie individuality, at least not musically. (Lyrically, the LP mostly lacks Brock’s usual keen wit.)
During the long gestation period for a follow-up to the unexpected hit album, Brock invited guitarist Johnny Marr to join Modest Mouse. The resulting We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank is stunning, and easily ranks with the band’s best. Rather than catalyzing a change of direction, Marr reinvigorated Brock, who delivers tireless vocal acrobatics and cutting couplets like never before. Whether he is laughing like a maniac (“March Into the Sea”), channeling Roxy Music (“Dashboard”) or yapping delightful nonsense (“Florida”), every song is hypnotizing. Marr’s influential riffing crops up only occasionally (if unmistakably) on “Fly Trapped in a Jar” and “People as Places as People.” Shins singer James Mercer adds backing vocals. This is Brock’s show, however, and he shines. The terrific “Parting of the Sensory” is typical: it starts with a nursery rhyme coo, proceeds to weary disgust (“Who the hell made you the boss?”) and ends with a burst of gypsy chanting. A highly recommended recording.