Gravity Rides Everything: An Appreciation of Modest Mouse
[There are a handful of artists that would compel me to spend a whole weekend writing 2,200 words on them, simply because I needed an outlet to profess my extreme admiration. Modest Mouse is one of them.]
Few bands have chiseled out a legacy in the echelon of indie rock like Modest Mouse.
Taking their name from a line in an obscure Virginia Woolf story, the band formed in 1993 in the small Northwestern town of Issaquah, Washington. In short course the group forged a uniquely recognizable sound that is as malleable as it is distinct, orbiting around Isaac Brock’s lisping vocals, Eric Judy’s fluid bass and Jeremiah Green’s militaristic drumming.
As demonstrated with every subsequent album title, Modest Mouse is a band of contradictions, from Brock’s trademark juxtapositional wordplay to the their manic musical personality, which oscillates between quiet and loud, smooth and jagged, mental and muscular, sensitive and psychotic.
Though few would characterize Modest Mouse graceful, their career is perhaps most striking for the smooth trajectory in which the group has repeatedly outgrown its shell with the utmost of dignity.
As Steven Arroyo summed up for Consequence of Sound, “Never has any band with quite the level of indie cred and quite the surefire path to being scene-lifers gotten to quite the level of mainstream acceptance quite as suddenly, all while relinquishing quite as few of their impulses.”
Finally, eight years after their last proper album, the band has released it’s newest effort, Strangers to Ourselves — our Album of the Week.
Below, enjoy an exhaustive chronicle of Modest Mouse’s two decade career, as lovingly told through their venerable discography.
Sad Sappy Sucker (1994)
Though it was not actually released until 2001, following the success of The Moon & Antarctica, Sad Sappy Sucker (Chokin’ on a Mouthful of Lost Thoughts) was originally slated to be Modest Mouse’s debut LP before being shelved for various reasons.
Written and recorded when the original trio were still teenagers, with only one song (out of 24) peeking over the 3-minute mark, the album feels very much like the collection of demos it essentially is.
Many critics have remarked that the band, along with the world, was spared the fate of such a lusterless debut, but what it lacks in commercial appeal or fully-fledged ideas, Sad Sappy Sucker is a fascinating keystone for understanding the band in their infancy, with occasional flickers of brilliance notwithstanding.
The influence of Pixies, Built to Spill and their Northwestern surroundings are readily apparent. Isaac Brock’s peculiar lyrical interests are already on display (“Path of Least Resistance,” “Birds vs. Worms”), and Jeremiah Green sounds in full control of his drum kit from the get-go.
“It Always Rains on a Picnic” was a clear first version of later song “Talking Shit About a Pretty Sunset.” The accordion interludes on ”Think Long” and “From Point A to Point B” play with similar devices they would later embrace on Good News For People Who Love Bad News.
Most tracks are inconsequential sketches, but the most developed of numbers, such as “Four Fingered Fisherman,” “Mice Eat Cheese,” and “Dukes Up,” preview what Modest Mouse were soon to be realized as.
This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About (1996)
From the earliest bars and lines of opener “Dramamine,” Long Drive comes out of the starting gate sounding like Modest Mouse in their early quintessence.
In comparison to Sad Sappy Sucker, it’s a sonically polished and fully-fleshed affair, which was recorded in Olympia, Washington’s Moon Studios with producer-engineer Steve Wold, who many know today as garage bluesman Seasick Steve.
The album lays down the same themes that would make its successor a bona fide masterpiece, though Long Drive isn’t far from being one itself.
As fellow children of American West can relate, and as the title conveniently suggests, Long Drive is an apt road trip album for a caravan with nowhere to go. Brock harrowingly describes the paradoxical expanse and isolationism of the West, and the trio’s dynamic instrumentation only serves to enforce these feelings, which sporadically swing between docile and volatile, despondent and enraged, controlled and unbridled.
It’s an album that yields a new favorite moment upon every listen, from the climactic breakdowns of “Tundra/Desert” and “Breakthrough” to the ear-splitting angst of “Beach Side Property” and “Head South” to the Bukowskiesque melancholy of “Custom Concern” and “Talking Shit About a Pretty Sunset.”
The Lonesome Crowded West (1997)
Elaborating on Long Drive‘s motifs of travel and disillusionment, Lonesome Crowded West more sharply describes the defiling disposition of Western development that the band evidences with every new parking lot, strip mall and gas station.
The album also manages to be deeply personal and philosophical, with often confessional lyrics exposing personal vulnerabilities, religious cynicism, and existential cries for meaning. Physical confines are equated with mental ones, much of which exposes the artifacts of Brock’s own broken childhood. Raised within various fundamentalist Christian communities, his depreciation of religious tenets remains a repeating source of lyrical content.
Exemplifying their brain-and-brawn touch, “Trailer Trash,” “Out of Gas” and “Long Distance Drunk” are even-tempered jams of whimsical wordplay, while ”Doin’ the Cockroach,” “Shit Luck” and 11-minute opus “Trucker’s Atlas” are berserk death marches.
Closing tracks “Polar Opposites,” ”Bankrupt on Selling” and “Styrofoam Boots/It’s all Nice on Ice, Alright” exhibit Modest Mouse’s penchant for finishing their albums on a tranquil, trying-to-be-optimistic sentiment, which gives all their intermittent rage such sobriety.
Lonesome Crowded West was an early peak that earned Modest Mouse a cult-following. And though the album could have lived on by itself, the band had much more to say.
Building Nothing Out Of Something (1999)
As the title cleverly (and antithetically) suggests, Building Something Out of Nothing is in fact a compilation of non-album tracks, yet the 55-minute album very much stands up as proper LP, if not ranking among Modest Mouse’s best works.
For a record of album rejects, there’s not a throwaway track on it. Rather than being unified by a common theme or time period, the album showcases some of Isaac Brock’s most articulate songwriting, as well as the multiplicitous entanglement of textures and temperaments that constitute Modest Mouse up to that point in time.
“Never Ending Math Equation” “Interstate 8″ and “Broke” exemplify the turn of the century indie rock that would lead the charge with for years to come. ”Workin’ on Leavin’ the Livin’” is one of the most beautiful, patient songs of their career.
Especially in its latter half, the album finds Modest Mouse at perhaps its most melancholy. Beginning with folk confessional “Baby Blue Sedan,” and finishing with anxious jam-ballad “Other People’s Lives,” Brock expresses some his deepest fears and social fragilities, which are told through such heartbreaking lines as ”I’m doing the best I can,” “I’m lonesome when you’re around,” “Other people’s lives seem more interesting ‘cuz they ‘aint mine” and “I haven’t hung out with anyone / ’Cause if I did, I’d have nothing to say.”
Even though the songs were actually written over several years, they come together like a convergent work of newfound wisdom. In light of the angst and irritation of Long Drive and Lonesome Crowded West, Building Nothing Out of Something sounds like Modest Mouse undergoing cold rinse of acceptance — a calculated surrender to the unyielding gears of change. As the band would find for themselves, change doesn’t have to be the enemy.
The Moon & Antarctica (2000)
The new millennium would mark a fundamental turning point for Modest Mouse.
Having signed to Epic Records, and embracing the new arsenal of resources that a major label allows, The Moon & Antarctica represents a giant leap forward in production and experimentation. Despite the added hands on deck, notably producer Brian Deck, the band remained highly involved in every aspect of the recording process.
Inevitably, older fans would question the move as sign of the band selling out — and it wouldn’t be the last time — but the stellar results took the wind out of most such claims. What the band lost in rawness and honest charm, they made up for with revelatory dynamism, and many still defend The Moon & Antarctica as Modest Mouse’s seminal achievement.
Moving largely past previous subjects matters of Western decay and personal anxieties, the record deals heavily with space and metaphysical concerns with afterlife. With tunes like “3rd Planet,” “Gravity Rides Everything,” “Dark Center of the Universe” and “The Stars Are Projectors,” critics went so far to brand it as a concept album.
Many have also noted the album’s synchronicity with the Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin, both of which embraced thematic and stylistic spaciness, and broke the two cult favorites into into a new popular orbit.
Songs such ”Tiny Cities Made of Ashes” and “Paper Thin Walls” help distinguish The Moon & Antarctica as the blossoming point that bridged Modest Mouse’s early genius with their subsequent mainstream acceptance.
Good News For People Who Love Bad News (2004)
By many measurements, Good News For People Who Love Bad News is Modest Mouse at the height of its prowess, and an easy favorite for later converts to the band.
Altering the core trio for the first time, Good News marked the momentary departure of Jeremiah Green while enlisting an inventory of session players and new instruments (incl. piano, organ, banjo, fiddle, glockenspiel), and a featured appearance by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.
Forfeiting its predecessors conceptual heaviness, the album is a flowing work of tightly-crafted brilliance that retains the band’s lyrical complexity, artistic embellishments and unique grit.
“Float On” will effortlessly go down as their all-time biggest song, while “Ocean Breathes Salty,” “Bury Me With It,” “Bukowski,” “Blame it on the Tetons,” and “The Good Times Are Killing Me” also rank among some of the most memorable of their career. It may be pop friendly, but it’s also as close to perfect as Modest Mouse has ever come.
The album received universal acclaim and earned the band spots on popular radio waves and major TV programs. It would also become the band’s only Platinum-selling album to date.
We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank (2007)
With little room to grow, Modest Mouse managed yet another resonant, if divisive, success with their Good News follow-up.
Along with the return of Green on drums, they recruited none other than former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr to join as a full member of the band, although this would only last through the album’s recording and touring cycle. Shins frontman James Mercer also sings backup on three tracks.
Though it would not sell as highly as Good News in the long run, We Were Dead was the band’s first number one album on the Billboard charts. In spite of its success, and perhaps because of it, the album also distanced some longtime fans, who felt the band went too far in crafting radio-friendly rock.
Yet despite the heavy radio play of ”Dashboard,” “Missed the Boat” and “Little Motel,” tunes like ”Spitting Venom” and “Parting of the Sensory” flash the band’s more abrasive side. The words are less personal, but Isaac Brock has never sounded more confidant as a singer and frontman. And the nautically-themed album concept shows an ever-greater focus on crafting a cohesive record from beginning to end.
Whatever the mixed reception, We Were Dead is winning effort from a band that just keeps on winning.
Strangers To Ourselves (2015)
Modest Mouse fans had valid concerns about Strangers to Ourselves. Between the eight year wait, abandoned production-help from Big Boi and Krist Novoselic, and, most troublesome, the departure of founding bassist Eric Judy, most folks were wondering if an new LP would ever come out, or whether we even wanted it anymore.
Yet somehow Modest Mouse sidestepped all of that to produce a positively joyous return. Strangers To Ourselves could have been made any year since We Were Dead was released, and as such, longtime fans will scrutinize it in the same ways. The high degree of refinement shows the repeated sessions in the studio, but the end product floats and sometimes flies.
Highlights include lead single “Lampshades on Fire” and the Talking Heads-flavored ”The Ground Walks, with Time in a Box.” Similarly, ”Sugar Boats,” “Wicked Campaign” and “The Best Room” help the band sound as vivacious as ever. Odd thumb ”Pistol (A. Cunanan, Miami, FL. 1996)” is the only track that sticks out as something either overcooked or underboiled.
If anything is missing from Strangers To Ourselves it’s the lack of forward motion from a band that has repeatedly pushed boundaries with every new release. Nonetheless, they occupy a pleasurable space, and there’s something satisfying how band seems newly comfortable dropping sonic and lyrical references to their past.
What’s certain is that Modest Mouse is alive and well, and not finished yet. As if to make up for lost time, Brock himself has indicated that another new album is already in the works and planned for release “as quickly as it’s legally allowed.” We’ll be waiting to greet it on the shore.