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Modest Mouse Sell Out to the Man?

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I used to be a music scenester in the 80’s. I know that probably dates me, but I liked all the new bands before anyone else did. I bought Boy – the first U2 album when it came out (vinyl of course), and I saw R.E.M. in concert before they even released their first EP Chronic Town. I thought I was so “cutting edge.”

I remember thinking how cool the Psychedelic Furs were. I had purchased their record Talk Talk Talk and it didn’t leave my turntable for months. All my friends were listening to it, and we thought it was so great that it seemed we were the only ones on the planet who recognized Richard Butler’s raspy croon.

Then John Hughes made that awful movie with Molly Ringwald and used their song “Pretty in Pink” for his movie and its title. To make matters worse, the Furs re-recorded the song and it lost its badge of coolness for us.

The worst sin, we thought back then, was for a band to sell out.

Many moons have passed since then. I have turned into a musical nerd. All my R.E.M. memorabilia is in storage. I occasionally listen to the Beatles and The Who. I’ve enjoyed Firefall’s Greatest Hits for grins and giggles, and I even have a closet fetish for Sheryl Crow. I am so not cool .

Now it seems ridiculous that me and my friends would drop a band simply because they signed to a major label, got to use their song in a film, or obtained mainstream popularity. The latter is exactly what has happened to Modest Mouse with their latest disc, Good News for People Who Love Bad News.

The album starts out with a ten-second horn blast by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band ushering us into “The World at Large.” Our front man Isaac Brock creates an aura of the bohemian drifter and then shoots us into the anthem-like “Float On.” The guitar on this tune plinks in an 80’s style reminiscent of XTC. The use of the Mellotron and the combination of voices swirls around a theme promising a safe passage into the afterlife.

Modest Mouse can still serve up some agnostic angst with poppy hooks on “Ocean Breathes Salty.” “Good luck/for your sake I hope heaven and hell are really there/but I wouldn’t hold my breath,” Brock laments on one of the strongest tracks on this disc.

Brock has a distinctive voice that can go from a whiny lisp to a howling bellow as is evident on, “Bury Me With it.” Although cryptic lines like “We are hummingbirds who lost the plot/and we will not move” get thrown in the mix, Modest Mouse earn the listener’s respect by blazing through three minutes and forty-nine seconds of hard-core indie-action. Having been compared to the Pixies in reviews countless times, it almost appears that Modest Mouse has accepted the parallels to them in this song.

On “The Devil’s Workday,” Brock sounds like he downloaded Tom Wait’s voice into his body. As he growls, “All those people that you know/floatin’ in the river are logs,” the Dirty Dozen Brass band backs him up as he picks the banjo creating an almost Asian flavor to the song.

Whereas the 1997 album The Lonesome Crowded West thoroughly addressed the shallowness of materialism and alcoholism taking the listener on a road-trip of existential isolation, Brock and company’s theme of death and reincarnation on the current release gets a bit ridiculous with the message around mid-disc.

“Blame it on the Tetons” is a good example. When Brock sings, “Everyone’s an ocean drowning with no one really to show how/they might get a little better if they turned themselves into a cloud,” I’m reminded of forgettable hippy-dippy poetry readings in Boulder. Is this really the same band that almost ripped our ears off with “Doin’ the Cockroach?”

Some part of me still must be an indie snob because I still appreciate the raw sound of The Lonesome Crowded West much more than this new release.

I think the Mouse has maintained their indie credibility; however, they seem to be more derivative these days and some of the inane moments on this release really stand out. All in all, I’d say it’s still worth purchasing this CD because the majority of the songs are listenable, but it ain’t like the good old days. I miss the depressive yowling in “Polar Opposites.” What can I say?

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About Jane

  • Eric Olsen

    thanks Jane, I haven’t heard this perspective on the album before – always good to see you back

  • Anon

    Thanks, good review, and I agree about those goddam indie snobs! (although we can all be one at times I guess…not me of course, as a U2 fan, but…;-))

    Still, I think Modest Mouse’s earlier stuff was better than “Good News…” “The Moon and Antarctica remains my favorite effort of their, I just like the atmosphere more. Still, hearing them on the radio doesn’t bother me; if anything, I’m glad to see them gain popularity, it made it easier for me to catch them on this tour!

  • I still love the insane rawness of “The Fruit That Ate Itself” but the new stuff is good, even if it is different.

    In terms of “selling out” I still struggle with this immature notion at times, but the fact remains that musicians deserve to buy houses and make mortgage payments just like the rest of us sellouts. It is tough for me to keep that in mind sometimes.

  • Brady

    My opinion is that Modest Mouse has never been a good or much less great band, which makes this album’s popularity a bit of a shock to me. I do think that “Float On” is a decent single notwithstanding its blatant unoriginality but nothing else on the album stands out. Brock has never struck me as a good songwriter; just an above average noise maker. Because they have always seemed overrated to these ears, it comes as no surprise that people are buying “Good News…” up in bushels. They have always been a very trendy “underground” band, why would they stop being so as a “major label” band? If one really examined their ouvre with an objective ear, I think they would find a whole lot of the Emperor wearing no clothes. Not a substantial enough band to really become dissapointed with in the first place. As “sellouts” or “nobodies,” who cares?

  • jane ripley

    Well thank you Eric.

    Man, I’m completely overwhelmed by all these comments. Let me just first state that the title to my posting was meant to be ironic. I guess I was trying to make that point that when i was a younger, I got outraged by bands “selling out to the man.” I’m not like that anymore. I outed myself about liking Sheryl Crowe for crissakes. I guess I should have supplied sarcasm html tags to my title, so sorry. I am sorta a indie snob, but I’m working on that by listening to jazz and discovering kitshcy delights like Firefall.

    And yes, The Mouse deserve their house in the Hamptons or whatever. If Jeff Tweedy can get a fixer upper, why can’t they?

    I would made some references to “The Moon and Antarica” in my review, but I haven’t heard it yet, but thanks for bringing it up Anon. I need to get a copy, because lots of folks tell me that it’s good.

  • jane ripley

    Sorry about my horrible grammar folks. I’m doing twelve things at once tonight.

    And thanks again for the comments. I live for feedback.

  • Good News… is definitely more immediate than their previous albums. Perhaps that means it’s more accessible, but I’ve never seen that as a bad thing if it’s done well.

    I think Float On is one of the finest songs of the year. It conjures a perfect triumphant mood and it’s daaamn good. I guess I should be glad I ignore the radio and don’t have to worry about them playing it out for me.

    Moon & Antarctica is def a good album, though I haven’t given it the attention it probably deserves… I’m a bit of a recent convert.

  • jane ripley

    So am I.

    And if it wasn’t for my ex-boyfriend i would have never discovered “The Lonesome Crowded West,” which i think is an incredible album.

    Thanks for further verification that “The Moon and Antartica” is worthwhile listening.

  • James