By Mark Guarino
The summer of 2004 was a wacky one thanks to Modest Mouse, a nearly 10-year college rock veteran band that suddenly had a Billboard-topping hit song (“Float On”), airplay alongside Beyonce and a welcome mat at mass consumption’s doorway thanks to cover versions by the Kidz Bop crew and the shiny, happy stars of “American Idol” — for a car commercial, no less.
Things like this are not supposed to happen. Modest Mouse is among a legion of U.S. bands — Built to Spill, Mercury Rev, Sparklehorse — that defined college radio in the late 1990’s and early part of this decade with idiosyncratic rock meant for discerning ears, not necessarily the “TRL” crowd. A growler, a shouter, a barker, Isaac Brock is hardly lead singer material of the Ricky Martin variety. Like an over-medicated Tom Waits, his music rides a double-sided sword of laughter and rage; in its frenetic strum and stomp, the ugliness flickers, very often, with beauty.
For all of Modest Mouse’s apocalyptic visions, self-loathing angst and pent-up energy, Brock has steadily embraced his pop sensibilities too. “Good News for People Who Love Bad News” (Epic), the album that delivered “Float On,” was the definite turning point. The even wordier-titled “We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank” (Epic), the band’s fifth album released recently, is also aimed at a crossover. For all you diehards of the mighty Mouse, take a deep breath and step away from your blogs: Despite the album’s manic pop energy — and plentiful pop hooks — Brock and Co. have not abandoned the quirks that made this band exciting in the first place. “We Were Dead” does not move the band further into the mainstream, it’s more of a holding pattern demonstrating what it is they do best.
Deep thinkers look elsewhere. Modest Mouse has yet to be as profound as 2000’s “The Moon & Antarctica” (Epic), for me what remains as their best album. These are, I suppose, the sacrifices a band makes to fill concert seats. In place of musings on the cosmos, the continuing thread on this album is a kind of wrecked sea imagery, none of which fully comes together. The best connector is Brock channeling the madness of Captain Ahab, a deliciously over-the-top portrayal. “Well treat me like the sea/I’m so salty and mean/Ah-ha-ha!” he sings (“March Into the Sea”) amid squeezing accordions and crashing guitars.
That rhythmic frenzy has always been Modest Mouse’s calling card. But on this album, the chaotic fervor never gets as dark as past tendencies. Instead Brock and his band revisit mid-period Talking Heads and Afro-pop workouts like “I Zimbra,” which are much more about the sheer ebullience of the moment than simply a loud and fast way to burn off misplaced energy.
Credit the renewal to two unlikely collaborators: Johnny Marr, legendary guitarist for The Smiths and James Mercer, the lead singer of The Shins. Both bring leanness to these songs and, where Brock tends to grind them down, they lift them back up, by peppering them upbeat pop sensibilities.
“Dashboard” is the greatest departure — strings, a horn section and Marr’s jangle-pop riffs create a sensory overload while always keeping a wiry pop edge. Marr introduces a dictionary of jittery guitar lines, cutting into the songs with spacey effect but also beefing them up and pushing them forward.
Mercer is a vocal anecdote to Brock. On “Missed the Boat” and “We’ve Got Everything,” the two standouts here, his high, bright vocals provide a pleasant contrast, bringing light to Brock’s natural pessimism. “We’ve got everything down to a science/so I guess we know everything,” he snarls, answered by Mercer who caps the thought as if dialing in from a trampoline: “We know! We know!”
“We Were Dead” ends long after it should have, which demonstrates that, despite the Mouse’s higher profile and great expectations, they are not content to fully trim back their indulgences. That prevents “We Were Dead” the greatness the first half of the album summons. But for a band turning a long-honed pessimism into potential hits, hope floats.