The Modest Mouse of the 2000s was very of its time, when indie rock was turning more porous and mainstream. The Moon and Antarctica from 2000 clothed their decrepit strains in major label finery and production by someone outside of their local bubble, Califone‘s Brian Deck. The record also let in influences that were not yet entirely indie-approved, such as dance music on “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes”. Morbid lyrics and backmasked guitars notwithstanding, “Gravity Rides Everything” was catchy enough to sell Nissan Quest minivans. Moon, though clearly a classic now, caused debates over whether Modest Mouse had “sold out,” something people still earnestly fretted about as the Internet was upsetting old hierarchies.
This commercial openness was quite a shift for a band defined by a sense of isolation in its own secret world. The Modest Mouse of the ’90s had also been very much of its time, when indie rock was less of a popular genre than a refuge from them. Weird bands from nowhere places strained their quirks through a punk filter, and their styles were narrower but, perhaps, deeper than those of their polyglot descendants. Modest Mouse fit the mold. Formed by singer and guitarist Isaac Brock, drummer Jeremiah Green, and bassist Eric Judy in the Washington suburb of Issaquah, they had a kind of insular, visionary oddness.
Modest Mouse quickly found purchase in the Pacific Northwest scene. In 1994, they made their first EP with Calvin Johnson in Olympia for his twee-punk label K Records, as well as a single for Seattle’s Sub Pop. They also recorded the album Sad Sappy Sucker, which sat on the shelf until 2001, when it did indeed turn out to be their most K-style record—bright, baggy, and loose at the seams. During this time they veered off into a wilderness of their own devising, debuting with the darker and tauter This Is a Long Drive for Someone With Nothing to Think About on Up Records in 1996. That and their second Up album, 1997’s The Lonesome Crowded West, have just been reissued by Brock’s Glacial Pace label. Both are excellent, but it’s the more fully formed Lonesome that consummates an era.
From the start, Modest Mouse were instantly recognizable: Judy’s ropy bass and Green’s drumming, heaving from a caveman bash to a disco skip, are indispensable to the rangy, volatile sound. But it’s the guitars that really define it, so strange and particular—Brock’s hearty riffs, string bends, harmonics, and whammy-bar tremolo push up toward trebly extremes of panicked intensity. The songs break down into wheezes and coughs as the band pounds the ends of bars until they curl up like sheet metal.
But they weren’t completely ex nihilo. Like other ’90s indie groups, Modest Mouse reflected their region before pulling free from it on later albums. There’s grunge in the whisper-scream dynamics here, metal and punk in sections of breakneck thrash, twee in the richly jangling acoustic guitars and in Brock’s voice, always petulant and pleading. There are also outlying indie touchstones—”Might” sounds like Built to Spill if someone had knocked Doug Martsch on the head, other songs evoke the Pixies by way of Pink Floyd. Even alt-rock is absorbed in the patchwork pop of “Lounge”, a medley of surf-rock, hot jazz, and chamber music with shout-rapped lyrics. But Modest Mouse were already fortifying their hermetic island on Long Drive, where they pitted the jarring against the lulling in diverse ways.
The great theme of both albums is travel, or more essentially, how motion through space feels. This is also intricately bound up with the physical geography Modest Mouse inhabited. The urban paranoia of post-punk seeps into wide-open rural, looming industrial and encroaching suburban vistas, all alike in their sinister, hypnotic repetition. With the first words of Long Drive, “traveling swallowing Dramamine,” a sense of drugged conveyance through some grand monotony settles over us. We seem to glimpse empty landscapes with twisty bits of things blowing through them in the window of a train. Strip malls and parking lots, monuments and steeples, empty fields and dark forests scroll by in a purgatorial loop. This becomes overt on “Convenient Parking”, a dusty practice riff with broken springs.
For Brock, these enclosing physical confines are tantamount to mental ones; he’s always moving forward without getting anywhere different, and he confronts this existential emergency with disdain and terrified awe. The music cultivates its particular urgency by devising and then breaking free from psychic traps. “From the top of the ocean/ From the bottom of the sky/ Well, I get claustrophobic,” Brock bellows on Lonesome‘s “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine”, an image that would return in different form a few years later on “Ocean Breathes Salty”. The earth and heavens are not mediums but inescapable masses, crushing us in the seam where they meet. The feeling of being stuck in a small town inflates to cosmological proportions.
Home-schooled in religious hippie communes, Brock was primed for this visionary vocation. His lyrics are marked by a war between militant atheism and kind of crypto-Christian mysticism, a tension that twists his perspective into strange shapes. On these records, the pavement is steadily encroaching on the wild in ways that feel spiritually symbolic. Brock wants to wrench apart ground and sky, prefabricated towns and consumer culture, to find an exit hatch into some deeper, more meaningful state of being which, as he suspects on “Exit Does Not Exist”, is a fantasy.
Modest Mouse never captured their particular rural paranoia better than on Lonesome‘s “Cowboy Dan”, a minor key dirge that takes us to a jet-black desert rustling below the occasional shooting star. It’s a folkloric tale of a cowboy who tries to shoot down God as revenge for mortality, with eerie calls and groans floating out of a vast, breathing darkness. “I didn’t move to the city, the city moved to me,” he cries, via Brock’s rabid goblin croak, “and I want out desperately,” a theme that first began to develop on Long Drive‘s “Beach Side Property”.
It’s all about inverted insides and outsides: huge landscapes that feel like small cages, civilizations that breed a savage misanthropy, disbelief that feels like religion. “Doin’ the Cockroach” begins with the elusive dichotomy, “I was in heaven, I was in Hell/ Believe in neither but fear them as well.” Brock excoriates riders on the Amtrak for “talking ’bout TV,” punctuating his condemnations with pleas to “please shut up.” He also slips in one of the best of the obscure aphorisms that would come to increasingly infiltrate his litany of complaints: Some number of years “down the road in your life, you’ll look in the mirror and say, ‘My parents are still alive.'” I think it’s about getting older, but it’s open to numberless interpretations, all of them with the indescribable ambient menace of a bad dream.
The Lonesome Crowded West fine-tunes forms that were introduced on Long Drive. “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine” and the sprawling “Trucker’s Atlas” draw the erratic thrust of “Breakthrough” into sleeker, more commanding arcs. “Lounge (Closing Time)” is a less novelty-based, more structurally balanced version of “Lounge”. And “Shit Luck” is even more potent than”Tundra/Desert”, with two-note power chords growling up and down the neck in breakneck syncopation with wailing string bends. The record also refines some new looks that would soon be developed, such as the scratchy rural funk jam of “Jesus Christ Was an Only Child” and tender, ringing ballads such as “Heart Cooks Brain” and the gentle confessional “Trailer Trash”.
With Moon, Modest Mouse caught a new wave of spacey psych-pop alongside the likes of The Flaming Lips, and it let them out on a foreign shore: mainstream success. Good News for People Who Love Bad News (2004) went platinum, produced hit single “Float On”, landed the band on SNL and earned a Grammy nomination. To me, that was the last real Modest Mouse album—and even it was on the verge—as the personalities that made the group unique got diluted by new personnel, i.e., someone as externally defined as Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr. We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank (2007) was the band’s first number one album, but it felt like an ending, and only an EP of leftovers from the last two albums has emerged since.
Lonesome came out right on the hinge between indie rock’s regional phase and its global one, in 1997, the year I got my first email address, and I still have the original LP I bought around then. Listening to albums you loved that long ago often feels like looking at old photos, but the remarkable thing about these reissues is that their thrill feels contemporary, a present sense of physical and psychological danger. Indeed, something you notice in an almost manically retro indie music climate is a striking absence of nostalgia. Things are fucked now, with no inkling that they were ever any better, no state of grace to return to.
The end of the ’90s were packed with epochal last gasps of pre-Internet indie rock that came out just as Radiohead’s OK Computer was becoming the avatar of the next, more mainstream phase. Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Pavement’s Brighten the Corners, Elliott Smith’s Either/Or—all exhausted blazes of glory, like light bulbs flaring brightest as they burn out. The Lonesome Crowded West stands tall and defiantly weird among them.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1sfoy3E