Modest Mouse


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This Is A Long Drive, 7/10
The Lonesome Crowded West , 7/10
Moon & Antarctica (2000), 6.5/10
Ugly Casanova: Sharpen Your Teeth , 7/10
Good News for People Who Love Bad News (2004), 6.5/10
We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank (2007), 5.5/10
No One's First And You're Next (2009), 5/10
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(Clicka qua per la versione Italiana)

The trio Modest Mouse originally hailed from Issaquah, a tiny provincial town in Washington State. Guitarist and vocalist Isaac Brock, helped by bassist Eric Judy and drummer Jeremiah Green (also in Red Stars Theory and Satisfact), had been at it since 1994, as documented by Sad Sappy Sucker (K, 2001), that collects the first unreleased album, their debut single Blue Cadet-3 (K, 1994) and the single Birds Vs Worms (Hit Or Miss, 1997).
The 1994 single contains the delicate melodic tapestry of It Always Rains on a Picnic and the shouted anthem of Dukes Up.
The unreleased tracks range from the punk-rock of Classy Plastic Lumber to the anemic ballad From Point A to Point B, from the drunk, jazzy shuffle of Red Hand Case to the angry rant of Race Car Grin You Aint No Landmark. Hardly a masterpiece.

The band's first album was the double-disc This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About (Up, 1996), a sprawling chronicle of everyday life in the 1990s. The best tracks (the melodramatic Dramamine, with a long romantic guitar-based coda, the seven-minute syncopated psycho-boogie Beach Side Property) manage to inject the quirky, dischordant and unstable rock and roll of the Pixies and even the Minutemen into the lo-fi pop format of Guided By Voices, Sebadoh and Pavement. The voice does most of the job. Isaac Brock recites his stories modulating the voice in a dramatic manner that often pushes the music aside. For example, the instruments simply lay down a quiet, steady carpet of low-key jumming in Custom Concern that Brock's neurotic delivery fills with meaning. And the psychodrama She Ionizes And Atomizes is worthy of a Brecht-ian actor. The instruments, on the other hand, tend to continue a song, after Brock has laid down its story, with (intentionally) sloppy jamming that adds to the sense of juvenile alienation. It may sound like they simply don't know how to end the song, but that very clumsiness is the most effective way to end it. Thus the lengthy codas that seem to share little with the original tune, and in some cases (Talkin' Shit About A Pretty Sunset, Make Everyone Happy/Mechanical Birds) basically override it.
Despite spearheading the emo revolution, Modest Mouse displayed enough affinities with the punk generation and the new wave, notably in the defiant punk-folk rants Breakthrough and Dog Paddle, the one-minute emotional burst of Might, the vehement funk-punk of Tundra/ Desert, and Lounge, in the vein of early Talking Heads (with another long coda, this time pivoting around an austere duet of cello and guitar).

Brock's honest, heart-felt lyrics were often more significant than the music, and this turned out to be particularly true for the following EPs. However, the title-track from Interstate 8 (Up, 1996) and The Fruit That Ate Itself from Modest Mouse (K, 1997), as well as Summer from the EP of The Fruit That Ate Itself (1997), succeed in marrying lyrics and music.

The single Birds Vs Worms (Hit Or Miss, 1997) contains the frantic and spastic lullaby Every Penny Fed Car and two bluesy numbers: Worms vs. Birds (imagine a lo-fi version of the Rolling Stones' Brown Sugar) and Four Fingered Fisherman.

Brock's in-depth look at the lumperproletariat and middle-class of the USA grew much sharper and musically assured with The Lonesome Crowded West (Up, 1998). His portraits of drifters, losers and disillusioned fools could now rely on supporting structures made of fiddle-driven folk (Jesus Christ Was An Only Child), country-rock (Trailer Trash), atmospheric pop (Polar Opposites) and even blues (Styrofoam Boots). The band could now rock, albeit in a goofy way (Lounge, reprised from This Is A Long Drive, Shit Luck, halfway between Led Zeppelin and punk-rock, and especially Doin' The Cockroach, their most ferocious song yet). Lyrically, Brock's specialty remained the road-song (Out Of Gas, the eleven-minute Truckers Atlas, and especially Long Distance Drunk, which is also one of the most original creations of the album), a genre to which he was making the most significant additions in decades. But songs such as the emphatic and convoluted Teeth Like God's Shoeshine, Cowboy Dan and Convenient Parking showed that he was capable of destabilizing any genre and style he decided to toy with. Generally speaking, the songs were more cohesive and less anarchic. Gone were the lengthy nonsensical codas. Brock was now firmly in command, and he was angrier and more bitter.

A few outtakes appeared on single, above all Other People's Lives (Up, 1998) and Never Ending Math Equation (Subpop, 1998).

Building Nothing Out Of Something (Up, 2000) collects the singles and other rarities.

While not one of their best albums, Moon & Antarctica (Epic, 2000) is a good introduction to Modest Mouse. 3rd Planet works as a generic ouverture to the band's musical psychodrama, replete with meek-neurotic interplay and suicidal lyrics. But Modest Mouse's skills at disorienting the listener are better summarized by the humbler Gravity Rides Everything, that braids an acoustic folk ballad and a raga-like strumming into a progressively noisier texture. A Different City and Paper Thin Walls are catchy and lively enough for general consumption, while the moody, desolate, noir music of Cold Part (hypnotic pace, romantic violin, Jim Morrison-ian scansion, guitar-bass doodling), the brief Syd Barrett-ian vignette of Wild Packs Of Family Dogs (childish refrain, cajun accordion) the metaphysical, Faust-ian country ballad I Came As A Rat are good specimens of their conceptual art.
Songs like Tiny Cities Made Of Ashes (disco beat, industrial dissonances, theatrical recitation, distorted rap, highway boogie), Life Like Weeds (permeated by Indian and classical influences) and the 9-minute The Stars Are Projectors (that spans generations of folksingers from Billy Joel to Neil Young and accelerates into a demonic bolero and a baroque fugue) are musical and poetic journeys. Modest Mouse are capable of changing direction within a song in a subtle way, a technique that they borrowed from progressive-rock (Genesis, Yes, Rush, Roxy Music) and adapted to roots-rock. Brock takes advantage of that technique to enhance the dramatic aspects of his stories.
The emotions, that have been brooding in dark, desperate songs like Dark Center Of The Universe (that builds up tension through an orchestral backdrop, a martial drumming and finally a mad shout against a hard-rock riff) and Alone Down There (a funereal flamenco shaken by sudden spasms) charge right at the end: Brock packs so much wrath and bitterness in What People Are Made Of that it sounds more like and indictment than a song.
The music, ever restless, is traversed by electronic noises (with a preference for A Day In The Life's vortex) that further acquaint the listener with the psychological depth of the songs.

Isaac Brock's side-project Ugly Casanova (featuring Black Heart Procession's Pall Jenkins, Califone's Brian Deck and Tim Rutili, Holopaw's John Orth) released Sharpen Your Teeth (Sub Pop, 2002), which is probably his most experimental album. Diamons On The Face Of Evil is a labyrinth of electronica, blues and folk (clarinet and mandolin engage in a derelict duet, "home-made" percussions are beaten feebly and a guitar weaves a casual middle-eastern motiv), whereas Pacifico (a gothic, emphatic dirge a` la Nick Cave, with monks' voices in the background) and Spilled Milk Factory (swampy blues shuffle, hysterical gospel call-and-response harmonizing, Beck fronting Captain Beefheart's band jamming with the Pink Floyd) are ballads for the future primitive.
The range of creative solutions is well represented by songs in perennial evolution such as Ice On The Sheets (a six-minute blues and funk work-out, enhanced by psychotic ranting and by a touch of Pere Ubu's modern-dance folly, that slowly slides into tribal dementia) and Smoke Like Ribbons (country affectations of slide and mandolin, electronic ghosts, and the Beach Boys' Good Vibration that surfaces from the mix). Not to mention the grand psychedelic finale of So Long To The Holidays, six minutes of intense mantra and sunny guitar licks and cosmic radiations.
Barnacles revolves around psychedelic whispers and sighs over a martial, Neil Young-ian pace, and is littered with post-industrial distortions and noises. Parasites unleashes a childish lullaby worthy of Brian Eno's Taking Tiger Mountain against the backdrop of an epic horn fanfare and dischordanti guitar jamming, whereas Things I Don't Remember recalls Syd Barrett's surreal singalongs, with banjo and fiddle used as percussions. The tender serenade Hotcha Girls stands as an exercise in profane arrangements, pitting classical strings against John Cale-ish dissonance and vocal distortion a` la early Grateful Dead.
Best to appreciate the album's swooning vocal harmonies is Cat Faces, where voices meet like winds in the prairie and the instruments (slide, organ) sound like samples from another song.
Brock's least linear and least personal album could turn out to be his lasting masterpiece.

Modest Mouse's Good News for People Who Love Bad News (Epic, 2004), four years after the last Modest Mouse album, already sounded like the work of an aging musician. The introduction, The World at Large, immediately shows how much Brock has mellowed down, and, later on, Blame It on The Tetons (with piano and violin) shows how plain he can be. Float On (the most radio-friendly song of his career) has plenty of verve (reminiscent of early Talking Heads) but, ultimately, reveals that he has found some peace of mind. Pop hooks abound (The Ocean Breathes Salty too) and so do dance beats (The View); and, for the first time, the band displays a candid sense of humor (the vaudeville-ish Bukowski, the Tom Waits-ian rhythm'n'blues The Devil's Work Day).
The blistering cantankerous neurosis of the early days is still discernible in the syncopated and seismic Bury Me With It (the most emotional song), in the grotesquely pounding ballet Dance Hall, worthy of a horror soundtrack, in the evil martial recitation of Satin In A Coffin, the vocal zenith of the album, and in the aggressive Black Cadillac.
Generally speaking, however, the man and his band have grown up, and have other priorities. One of them might be the mainstream audience, although in a more or less latent form (the guitars very slowly but steadily being supplanted by the electronic keyboards).
Like Moon & Antarctica, this album boasts some serious winners but still suffers from some unnecessary filler. Cleansed of the lame tracks and combined into just one, these two albums would have made a milestone recording. As they are, neither is memorable. They are mere containers for some of the songs that will eventually feature on Modest Mouse's greatest-hits album.

Nonetheless, the album became Brock's first bestseller.

Propelled by the commercial success of Good News, Brock hired former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr for We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank (Sony, 2007), which, despite the polished production and despite the catchy Dashboard (with funky guitar propulsion, electronic strings and rhythm'n'blues horns), actually sounded like a deliberate attempt at backing away from the sound of Good News for People Who Love Bad News.
A whole group of stances seemed to hark back to the 1980s: the apocalyptic tone of March Into The Sea, the anthemic ska-punk accents of We've Got Everything and Invisible, and the vibrating rage of Florida and Education. Others seemed to reach for the sound of the early days (the thin Parting Of The Sensory, the neurotic vocals and deranged guitar Fly Trapped In A Jar, although soaring with a disco beat).
The novelty of the album is the eight-minute Spitting Venom, strummed on acoustic guitar before turning into a chaotic Captain Beefheart-esque blues and eventually decaying into shoegazing territory.
Alas, the album has several doses of fluff and songs that do not quite make sense. Either Brock tried (and failed) to prove that he is more artistically talented than Float On showed, or he simply packed this album with too many inferior songs that had been left in the drawer.

No One's First And You're Next (2009) collects leftovers from We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank and Good News for People Who Love Bad News.

Jeremiah Green died at the end of 2022.

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