Wednesday, April 25

An Overdue (and Overblown) Review of Modest Mouse

Artist: Modest Mouse
Album: We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank

Comments: This record has been out for well over a month. It’s gotten tons of press from all sorts of publications, and no one needs to hear more about it. However, as a Modest Mouse superfan in the making, I feel compelled to give my two cents about the album. Still, I do so with trepidation; from the day I started this site, my goal has always been to present music as honestly as possible. Considering how much I worship the notes that Isaac Brock and his band of merry men create, this seems especially challenging to me. Never the less, I will press on with a track by track breakdown of the titanic record that is We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank.

If there is one thing that listeners can always count on from Modest Mouse, its kick ass opening tracks. "March into the Sea"maintains this trend with an accordion driven harmony and fierce, snarling vocals from the Brock, the drunk captain of this cursed pirate ship. It’s defeatist, powerful, raw, and undeniably addictive. Not to mention, it’s one of the most rocking songs MM has recorded since “What People Are Made Of”. And what’s more, the quiet-LOUD structure of the end of the song is the perfect segue into the first single…

…which is the horn sprinkled disco groove of “Dashboard”. Pitchfork called this song the Las Vegas version of “Float On”, and that is about as good a description as can be given. Like it’s poppy brother, the song features unusually upbeat lyrics and a dance-y melody that will be stuck in the brain for days. I wasn’t too keen on this song at first, but it’s definitely a grower song, and the perfect glass of milk to the spicy chicken wing that is March into the Sea.

The first two songs are followed by the disappointing “Fire it Up”. This song really doesn’t have too much going for it, other than a goofy quasi-stoner title. It is the first misstep on the record; it’s instantly forgettable. The instrumentation offers nothing outstanding, and it’s missing those painfully obvious but starkly brilliant life observations from Brock. Still, it’s unmistakably Mouse in its layered vocals. This is the first song on the record where Johnny Marr’s influence can really be felt

"Florida" – Now this song has a few interesting points to it. It starts in an angry flourish of synth effects and angular guitar, before transforming into longing pop, and then into a quiet, beautiful, and listless chorus. This song travels more ground 3 and a half minutes than some bands’ entire cataloge. Also, this song features vocals from Shins lead singer (and Brock’s next door neighbor) James Mercer.

"Parting of the Sensory" is the crown jewel of the record. Up until this point in the record, Brock had been nothing more than a howling madman; none of his drunken observations on the futility of life or red neck poetry were really present. "Parting" is classic Brock in that every line in the song can have double and triple meanings, making even the most mundane and commonplace palpable with depressing meaning. The song is a slow funeral march, starting out with only an acoustic guitar and base drum before finally exploding into a wall of sound, fulled by guitars, drums, mandolins, and Brock’s triple vocal attack. Brock screams “someday you will die/ and somehow something’s going to steal your carbon” like a man tearing his chest and howling into his own grave. It’s powerful, emotionally draining, and damn near perfect.

After the workout that is “Parting”, “Missed the Boat” is a natural song to come down to. It’s sweet, catchy, and easy on the ears, once again bringing in Mercer to bring the pretty. It still features more of Brock’s poetry, only it is a little less dramatic and apocalyptic here than it was on “Parting”; this song is more micro than macro (“Our ideas the held no water / but we used the like a damn.”). This song works both in the context of the record and as a track on its own. This is a strong candidate for second single, since it is on the softer, more poppy end of the Modest Mouse spectrum.

The second half of the record has more filler, after the mostly excellent A side. Songs like “We’ve Got Everything” and “Education” have nothing wrong per-say, but just don’t stick, either because Brock’s lines just don’t work, or the sound like other, better Mouse songs. “Fly Trapped in a Jar” is a standout. It starts of with a herky-jerky mocking tone before melting into a Farnz Ferdinand / disco dance groove (honest to god, Modest Mouse is making disco dance grooves now). The song works largely because of Marr’s more focused and accomplished guitar, which is a good match for Brock’s drunken kung-fu style of playing.

"Little Motel" is at the same time one of Modest Mouse most soft and personal songs, and one of the biggest departures from their established sound. Ever since “Lonesome Crowded West”, MM has been evolving from a spastic, lo-fi three piece into a multi-layered, pop minded, orchestral collective that is more concerned with the flaws in beauty than strengths in being angular, and no song better embodies this growth better than "Little Motel". Soft, inviting, and personal, this song will be a tough sell to old mouse fans. Hopefully, the jumpy distortion of "Steam Engenius" or the throbbing eight minutes of "Spiting Venom" will appease them.

The album that came in as a lion becomes a lamb again crossing the finish line, with the sloppy and uninspired "People as Places as People", before trying to make up for it with the soft explosion of "Invisible". "Invisible" is a good track, full of forceful vocals and jaunty guitar. The rhythm section is especially tight on this song. Still, it’s got the same tricks as the other hard tracks (like "March" or "Florida") and by the time this song comes along, the album has already run it’s course, so it feels like an afterthought.

So what the hell are you supposed to make of all this nonsense text I just layed down? After a song-by-song breakdown, what have we learned? We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank is both exactly like every other Modest Mouse album, and like no other before it. Like every other album, it has got it’s standout tracks, but it doesn’t hold up as an album. However, Brock’s observations and vocal styling are beginning to sound a little too similar, it’s almost like he’s running out of material. Still, this album is a hell of a grower if you let it hang around, and it serves to show that Modest Mouse might be one of the last great American rock bands.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Key Tracks: March into the Sea, Florida, Parting of the Sensory, Little Motel

Worth the Money: Yes

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