We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank
I have never liked Modest Mouse. OK, I liked that "Parking Lot" song because it had a ramshackle teenage desperation vibe that actually mirrored that of desperate teenagers, a sniveling jerk insouciance to it, but that's it. And it appears that my curse as a music critic is that I just don't get scores of bands that my music-liking peers dig. I've had friends play both The Moon & Antarctica and Good News for People Who Love Bad News in their entirety to combat my infuriating insistence that their favorite band was a bore, but I emerged resolute with an unblemished opinion that they are a tepid Pixies copy minus Black Francis' flickknife hidden in the words. Then, a couple things all happened on one day.
1. I decided that I was being stubborn, planting my flag on yet another lonely island I didn't even want to claim, so I pulled the new MM off the iTunes. I had some gift certificates.
2. I read that singer Isaac Brock pulled an Iggy at a gig in South Dakota, whacking his head with a microphone and then slashing his chest on stage with a flickknife I had accused him of lacking. My interest was undeniably picqued.
3. The download completed and I get it. I love this record.
Was his self-mutilation a publicity stunt? The result of an acute rock star crisis brought on by the fact that their new guitarist Johnny Marr was an infinitely bigger draw than the rest of the band? Had he heard that Kidz Bop version of "Float On" one too many times? Anything could have been the trigger. I used to live near the sun-deprived hills of Issaquah, WA from whence they hail, and I know that a life spent in the gloom will eventually cause you to snap, so maybe it was just his time. Whatever the reason behind this attention-gathering move, it got mine, and they rewarded it with this infectious nervous monster of a record.
"March Into the Sea" opens with accordions, a harbinger of weirdness if there ever was one, right before Brock's Jeckyll and Hyde self duet, cackling looney and fragile doe-eye swapping out in one of the better exercises of the Pixies quiet-loud formula in a while. They still sound like the Pixies, but this time they rise to the occasion and do something with it. "Dashboard" is the requisite Gang of Four disco punk stomp with a horn section upgrade. What I like about it is that the band as whole seems to whip itself into a positive frenzy without losing their footing on the dancefloor. "Fire It Up" follows the same formula as "Float On" did, with a fat studio production patina that frankly serves their sound. There are points on this record that sound thick enough that Dr Dre cold have been involved.
I was still trepidatious - as a critic, all you have is your opinions, but "Florida" forced me to drop them as I put my hands in the air. The improbably mix of War- era U2 and Rio- era Duran Duran that factor into this windswept number, added with the aggressive quick descent into madness at the end, makes this thing happen. The logic employed in creating these songs is hard to follow, and in the past, I thought it just made for hard-to-enjoy songs but here it makes for beguiling, active listening. These are songs that I want to decipher, I want to pull apart so I can see their beating hearts. I always hope for pop music that does that to me. This is pop music - music squarely of the modes and times, but unlike the whole of pop music, but manages to bypass being insipid and obvious.
"Parting of the Sensory" lays it all on the line by the time it weaves to the shout, "Oh fuck it, I guess I lost" before its whispered chorus. "Fly Trapped in a Jar" has a lot of Pavement in its woodpile, but oddly an equal portion golden era Oingo Boingo that makes this thing really tick like a bomb. Maybe Johnny Marr can coax Danny Elfman away from every movie in Hollywood, leaving something for Philip Glass to do next season, and bring him in to add some of his long gone weird science to the mix.
What I wasn't expecting was the prom-ready ballad "Little Motel." My dark side that wanted to see this album fail just so I could hold onto a notion no one including myself cared about rubbed its hands at this one, intoning, they are going to blow it here, watch.and lo, some lysergic aquarium distortion that permeates the song and comes to a head in the solos saves the day. Then "Spitting Venom" comes on like a lost song off Violent Femmes' Hallowed Ground sessions. What's next, a black metal onslaught that pits brock ripping out and eating his own rasp-worn throat before our eyes? No - a plaintive guitar number "People as Places as People" and a breathless dance rock punk funk thing, 'Invisible." Modest Mouse can do it all apparently, creating a musique non stop modern pop jukebox of a record that is both adventurous and wholly accessible.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com
March sees a greatly expanded reissue of Elliott Smith's most critically acclaimed album Either/Or