Modest Mouse's new album came out on Tuesday. Owing to the fact that former Smith's guitar god Johnny Marr is now the bands new guitarist, to say it was eagerly anticipated is an understatement. Nevertheless I have to say that I was disappointed upon my first listen. I've listened to it it 4 or 5 times now and I have to say that it's really growing on me.
Anyone else have thoughts?
BTW - here's what pitchfork had to say.
We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank
Download it from Emusic
For all of the pandemonium over the indie rock gold-record mainstream-radio-play explosion, few of the bands who breached Clear Channel's glass ceiling were actually longtime members of the small-label fraternity. The Shins and the Arcade Fire, to pick two of the bigger success stories, had relatively short histories before raising their profile beyond college campuses, while more seasoned groups with major-label money-sacks like Built to Spill and Mercury Rev never cracked the Billboard top 50. I could get all crotchety and bemoan this trend as the Johnny-Come-Latelies pulling the rug out from underneath the old vets, but it's more likely just a matter of younger bands sounding more enthusiastic on their second or third record and working with a fresher formula.
Of course, Modest Mouse are the exception to this generalization, having scored in the hit-song jackpot 10 years and four full-length albums into their career. Perennially relegated to the second tier of the 90s indie-rock league (I still remember mis-learning of them as a BtS spinoff), modern rock chart-topper "Float On" allowed Isaac Brock to have the last laugh on his former indie label brethren, as he enjoyed the kind of crossover hit that's eluded so many major-label recruits since the heady days of grunge. What was even more astounding was the fact that Modest Mouse-- mob cries of "sellout!" notwithstanding-- didn't really compromise their sound for mass consumption: Brock's weird yelp-shout retained its volatile quaver, the band's punched-up rhythm section still sounded sharp and vital, and the hunt for cosmic guitar pedal settings still sounded like their driving passion.
The album that gave birth to "Float On", Good News for People Who Love Bad News, was similarly unmitigated down to its mouthful title, but indicated that Brock wasn't treading water either, tweaking his sound to incorporate a touch of programming and the Tom Waits worship of his Ugly Casanova side project. We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank continues that measured consistency, preserving the core Modest Mouse sound despite the recruitment of historic guitar figure Johnny Marr while gently nudging toward new directions.
Ironically, the most successful track on We Were Dead is the one that pushes hardest against the group's established formula: the almost gaudy single "Dashboard". With Modest Mouse's trademark itchy guitars all but drowned out by brass fanfares and slurring strings, "Dashboard" is the Vegas version of "Float On", and it works as an experiment to see just how far they can push the dissonance of Brock's multi-tracked barking against slick, commercially ambitious surroundings.
Had the rest of the record gone further down this path of orchestration indulgence, it would've been either a classic or a disaster (just ask Trail of Dead, who've spent their time since Source Tags and Codes trying and utterly failing to create a similar kind of symphonic indie hard-rock). But instead of that dice-roll, We Were Dead continues to refine Brock's aesthetic, producing another solid (if not necessarily great) record. The development is clear in the way "Parting of the Sensory" smoothly evolves from foul-mouthed acoustic lament to boxcar-hobo hoedown, or on tracks like "Fly Trapped in a Jar", which takes an abrupt left turn halfway through from a dark, bristly screamer that echoes their earlier work to a jagged but dancey post-punk groove. Those latter moments are likely where Marr's much-anticipated influence is most obvious, but even then it's subtle; rather than impossibly sounding like the Smiths all of a sudden, the band has fun pilfering the rhythmic sheets of mid-period Talking Heads on songs like "Education" or "Invisible".
So yes, despite the hefty presence of Marr, it's still undeniably Brock's band, and his development as a frontman is most apparent in his impressive inventory of vocal characters: There's ornery/shouty Brock, Waitsian-growl Brock, spoken-word proselytizer Brock, wounded/reflective Brock, and countless permutations of all of these. Many of those personae appear in the same song or even the same line, singing backup to each other on opener "March Into the Sea" or allowing the singer to play call-and-response with himself on "Parting of the Sensory". And when Brock can't modulate his throat quite as sweetly as he'd like, he calls in the Shins' James Mercer, whose counterpoint on "Florida" and the excellent "We've Got Everything" help put a couple of strong follow-up singles in the can.
Unless my radio barometer is totally out of whack, 2007 should be another banner year for the disorienting experience of hearing Modest Mouse sandwiched between Fergie and Fall Out Boy, not to mention covered on "American Idol". There's no reason this development should be met with scorn; if anything, Modest Mouse should be championed for exposing a larger audience to a sound in line with classic indie rock, rather than aiming for more traditional rock sounds like many of their more accessible indie contemporaries. That a window has briefly opened in the greater cultural consciousness to make room for Modest Mouse on the airwaves would have been unthinkable at the start of the decade; that they've remained so true to their core aesthetic in light of the temptation that success undoubtedly brings is rarer still.
-Rob Mitchum, March 19, 2007