Modest Mouse Albums From Worst To Best
Modest Mouse is an easy band to take for granted. Emerging from the Pacific Northwest twenty years ago, it’s perhaps tempting to consider them just another “indie rock” band buoyed by Nirvana’s lucky break. Like Yo La Tengo, Modest Mouse almost immediately transcended such a pejorative tag, plotting a course weird, wonky, and refreshingly sui generis, earning them legions of fans despite significant odds. With at least two undisputed classics to their name, and neither of them including their great, unlikely hit “Float On,” Modest Mouse are practically overachievers.
Initially taking cues, like many of their contemporaries, from the recently disbanded Pixies, Modest Mouse quickly distinguished themselves with brazen, unabashed jammy tendencies (their albums frequently made full use of the CD’s 80-minute capacity), taut, slinky bass lines, and a general indifference to (or ignorance of) what was hip. Frontman Isaac Brock would regularly cite the Chieftains and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band as influences — not exactly indie rock references du jour. Even the band’s ‘cool’ influences seemed somehow misguided; these were guys who probably only enjoyed the Bastards disc of Tom Waits’s Orphans box set. You know, the one with all the sheet metal noises and weird poems and stuff.
Lyrically, Brock’s gift is for providing food for stoned thought. Often mixing willful naiveté with astute observations on space, nature, and class struggles, he personifies the too-smart-for-his-own-good wiseass on the playground teaching all the other kids about autopsies and orgies. In his songs, Brock assumes a position of great duality: geography-obsessed but preciously provincial; drunk-friend glib one minute, grappling with existential crises the next. While Stephen Malkmus was writing lyrics using the Scrabble dictionary, and popular underground bands still counted schoolteachers and graduate students among their ranks, Brock was singing, “God damn, I hope I can pass high school.”
Spotting specific influences in Brock’s guitar playing, too, is no easy task. Eschewing both the untutored Big Muff chug of the grungies as well as the clean, open-tuned indie jangle of contemporaries and Washington neighbors like the Spinanes, Brock’s whammy-bar-and-harmonic-heavy signature style is one of the more recognizable this side of J Mascis, a rare quality within the strict anti-hero politics of indie.
Even their best albums are stacked with filler. Live, they could be the worst kind of train wreck. Brock’s distinctive yawp has always sounded a little like South Park’s Eric Cartman trying to holler his way out of a DUI. Yet, Modest Mouse got famous, and not just, like, Neko-Case-indie-famous: Their songs have been performed on both American Idol and a Kidz Bop compilation; they’ve joined the, er, distinguished likes of Green Day, Elton John, and Creed for their very own entry in the inexplicably popular Pickin’ On series, which features bluegrass versions of decidedly non-bluegrass songs; and they’ve welcomed into their ranks a bonafide music legend. It’s hard to imagine a stranger Cinderella story, or, for that matter, many bands more deserving of one.
Current indie trends — gauzy noise-pop, joyless emo bombast, trap rave, etc. — make one nostalgic for the imagination, ambition, and scope of Modest Mouse’s halcyon days. There’s still no other band like them. With the band gearing up for a Coachella appearance, it’s high time to look back at their insane, explosive catalog.
7. Sad Sappy Sucker (2001)
Released as a curio following the band's major label success, Sad Sappy Sucker, recorded in 1994, is marketed as the 'lost' Modest Mouse debut, having been shelved in favor of This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About. Recorded by Calvin Johnson at Dub Narcotic, the album is as grating and undercooked as indie rock debuts come, full of indulgent studio experiments, half-assed sketches, and tunes that sound like a generic sadcore band's demo cassette in high-speed dub mode. If there is any question as to the necessity of owning this album, the inclusion of Isaac Brock's contributions to Dial-A-Song, a short-lived experiment in which in-the-know callers could hear exclusive song fragments by calling Brock's answering machine, should tell the casual fan all he or she needs to know. Sad Sappy Sucker is almost irreconcilable with the Modest Mouse of The Moon & Antarctica or even This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About, and fans of those sprawling, occasionally stupefying works will be left wondering if these brief songs, only two of which exceed three minutes, were ever actually intended for public consumption at all. Even given the few highlights -- the jocund, irresistible "Birds Vs. Worms" and the Cap'n Jazz-y "Duke's Up" -- Sad Sappy Sucker asks the question: "How many Built To Spills do we need?"
6. We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank (2007)
Expectations were high for We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank, Modest Mouse's follow-up to the platinum-selling, Grammy-nominated Good News For People Who Love Bad News. Not only was the band faced with the historically unenviable task of following up a successful mainstream record, but the indie elite, their appetites whet by the announcement that legendary Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr had joined the band, were watching, too. The addition of Marr would not be the only personnel change for Modest Mouse in 2007 -- founding drummer Jeremiah Green returned to the band for the album following a brief absence. As far as albums recorded under pressure go, the nautically themed We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank is nowhere near the disappointment it could have been. On the contrary: Though claustrophobic and overproduced, the album is the sound of Brock exploiting every resource, his reach and his grasp in harmony at last. If the album is generally considered something of a letdown, nobody told Billboard and CMJ -- the album peaked at No. 1 on both radio charts. First single "Dashboard," with its disco tempo, scenery-chewing strings, and ear-candy brass, is more Jeff Lynne than Jeff Mangum, while the party-inciting "Fire It Up" sounds like it was written with the express purpose of helping Mellow Mushroom employees get through their overtime shifts. Best of all is the uncharacteristically sweet "Little Motel," whose sinewy nest of guitar echoes recalls the chilly restraint of Sigur Ros. Still, there is a sense of bloat about We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank that has nothing to do with the album's running time (at just over an hour, it's actually one of the shorter Modest Mouse LPs). A nagging, fussed-over feel persists, and the sound of guitars compressed for radio play sharply increases in shrillness as the album approaches its mostly dull second half. Then again, along with Sparklehorse's similarly neglected Dreamt For Light Years In The Belly Of The Mountain, We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank remains one of the best major label albums of the new millennium that can still be had for three bucks.
5. Interstate 8 EP (1996)
Like many indie bands of the era, Modest Mouse released several singles and EPs that are as crucial to the band's discography as any of their full-length albums. (Some of these were compiled on the collection Building Nothing Out Of Something.) Technically a five-song EP augmented by six demos, Interstate 8 is a bridge between two of the group's most enduring albums. The band must have taken the expansion of the abbreviation 'EP' -- that is, extra player -- quite literally, as Interstate 8 clocks in at a not-very-pithy 55 minutes. Fans of This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About, released only four months earlier, will want to own Interstate 8 for the chugging title track and the spindly "Broke," both of which sound like continuations of the deep, expansive whimsy perfected on that album. Though the rest of the EP doesn't quite reach the heights set by the first two songs, Interstate 8 nevertheless demonstrates the band on something of a roll, and remains an essential part of the Modest Mouse story.
4. Good News For People Who Love Bad News (2004)
A rare case of a "breakthrough" album that makes good on a band's potential, Modest Mouse's second major label album had people who had never in their lives set foot inside an independent record store humming along to songs about misanthropic poets, 18th century buffalo-hunting tribes, and the joys of spending time in jail. The band's sound had already been beefed up considerably on the popular The Moon & Antarctica, so longtime fans were probably primed for the immensity of Good News For People Who Love Bad News. The timing was perfect: By now, hipster purists had either long since dismissed the band or reluctantly made their peace with the idea of their beloved 'Mouse receiving paychecks from the house that Michael Jackson built. This made Modest Mouse's transition to superstars palatable to, well, everyone who was listening. And a lot of people were: The album would go on to sell over one and a half million copies, thanks in no small part to the runaway success of first single "Float On." The song's propulsive hi-hat rhythm and high register guitar chime are classic Modest Mouse, albeit cleaner and sharper, while the Panglossian lyrics reveal a mirror world in which cops are reasonable and getting fired is awesome. Of course this song was a hit! "Bury Me With It" hearkens back to the Pixies-worship of the band's earliest singles, and if Brock's Black Francis impression makes you wince, consider that 80% of the band's fanbase at this point wouldn't know the Pixies from the Poppy Family. Elsewhere, the banjo-led "Bukowski" may be the world's first reggae shanty, while "Blame It On The Tetons" expertly conjures the hushed post-rock romanticism of mid-period Yo La Tengo. Modest Mouse fans that scoff at Good News For People Who Love Bad News are likely the same contrarians whose favorite Nirvana album is Bleach. This is not exactly Grave Dancer's Union. Shit, it's not even Dear You. Don't think of it as a hit album. Think of it as self-described trailer trash mooning the moguls who paid them to record fucked-up shit like "Dig Your Grave."
3. This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About (1996)
If you found yourself in a college dorm room in the late '90s, you were as likely to trip over a CD copy of This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About as you were a hot plate or a water bong. Such ubiquity was well earned. Vivid and peculiar, Modest Mouse's 'official' debut album deals with isolation, change, and fading faith in a way that spoke to a generation of aging punk rockers being encroached upon by urban sprawl. But by chiming so harmoniously with the times, the album also brought the band to the attention of people outside of fanzine-scourers and 7" subscription series benefactors. As for the songs, it doesn't get better than "Dramamine," which instantly reveals and capitalizes on Modest Mouse's Polaroid-saturated uniqueness. From the ambitious funk-jazz of "Lounge" to the shaggy blues of the Califone-esque "Custom Concern" to the herky-jerky capriciousness of the plainly weird "The Ionizes And Atomizes," the album plays like an advance guard of indie trends to come.
2. The Moon & Antarctica (2000)
If Modest Mouse's move to major label Epic caused panic among the Modest Mouse faithful (by now, a sizeable army), the resulting album quickly put any misplaced 'sellout' fears to rest. Though The Moon & Antarctica is hardly business as usual, it finds the band not making the expected concessions and compromises, but growing stranger and more indulgent. The album is the sound of a band taking full advantage of the increased recording budget to widen their sonic landscape, making these dense songs about planets and frosty wildernesses seem all the more starry and vast. Despite hiring a decidedly indie producer in Red Red Meat's Brian Deck, the album practically gushes with the conceptual density of '70s rock. The well-traveled characters in Brock's songs have also expanded their scope considerably, explaining on "3rd Planet" that "the universe is shaped exactly like the Earth/ if you go straight long enough you end up where you were," and wondering on "Stars Are Projectors," "where do circles begin?" Where songs formerly dealt with deserts, diners, and interstates, on The Moon & Antarctica , Brock has grown downright celestial. "3rd Planet" is one of the band's absolute best -- as far as panoramic opening statements go, it shares qualities with Spiritualized's similarly spacious "Ladies And Gentlemen, We Are Floating In Space." Elsewhere, "Tiny Cities Made Of Ashes" is almost Beefheartian in its foolhardy surrealism, while the rustic moaning on "Perfect Disguise" recalls some of Beck's more compelling songs circa Mellow Gold. With swathes of reverb and lyrics full of the sort of profound non-facts that occur to you on LSD trips (dude … stars are projectors!), The Moon & Antarctica is an almost overwhelming feast of noise and ideas, proving that Kid A was not the only major label album released in 2000 to seriously bring the weird.
1. The Lonesome Crowded West (1997)
With a mid-album run of songs that has rarely been bettered on any indie rock album not named In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, The Lonesome Crowded West remains Modest Mouse's defining statement. Ostensibly a concept album about the proliferation of strip malls and the paving of the west, the prescient and precocious album is the sound of minimalism writ large, performed by an orchestra of skull-capped skeletons who ride Greyhound buses and Amtrak trains for fun. Throughout the album, lyrical themes are often restated within musical structures, creating, accidentally or not, a rare sort of thematic harmony. Take, for example, the very long chorus of "Teeth Like God's Shoeshine," whose clinking, dolphin-song guitars demonstrate the "sparkling, shimmering and shining" of the lyrics. Similarly, choruses and bridges often take their time returning to verses; just as often they careen spaceward into solos and wide-open zones, as if to say "the songs are lonesome and crowded, too." Though the term has become meaningless in a post-Bon Iver, post-Arcade Fire kinda world, The Lonesome Crowded West is Modest Mouse's final indie rock record. It's the last Modest Mouse album recorded mostly as a three-piece, the last time Brock would strain so much to sound like Daniel Johnston, the last time double-tracked vocals would occasionally wander endearingly off-key (see "Trailer Trash"). Despite the successes of future albums, Modest Mouse would never again brush against this type of fleeting humanity. From the epic "Trucker's Atlas" (which features the immortal lyric "Every time you think you're walking/ you're just moving the ground") to the death-rattling, ominous "Cowboy Dan," The Lonesome Crowded West is the closest Modest Mouse ever got to perfect. Of course, the album would prove to represent as much a beginning as an ending. They may not have known it at the time, but for the band that always insistently claimed Issaquah, Washington, and not the neighboring hipster cities of Olympia or Seattle, as their place of origin, the world was about to get much, much bigger.