You tell me what you want,
and I’ll tell you what you get,
you get away from me,
you get away from me.
(“Ocean Breathes Salty”)
With the media hype quietly fading on Issaquah, Washington’s Modest Mouse, it seemed like the right time to give the band’s latest and most well-received release a listen.
It’s a testament to the increasingly insular nature of the recording industry that a band like Modest Mouse has been around since 1992 and have barely scored a blip on the radar. I know they are old news to their hardcore fan base, but had I been exposed to them earlier, I would have certainly not been shocked when they scored a hit with the buoyant “Float On,” the first single off Good News For People Who Love Bad News.
Throw in obnoxiously heavy rotation on college radio, and the selling out in all its commercial grandiosity, it really is no wonder that indie rockers cried like girly girls when another cult fave took the path most trampled.
But so what? The band has to eat and pay their phone bill right? With the second single, “Ocean Breathes Salty,” another atypical Modest Mouse confection — more often they weep, pee vinegar and gnash their teeth — the band sealed their fate by having the nerve to score yet another hit. How dare they make music AND be successful?
Modest Mouse formed in 1992 when singer/songwriter/guitarist Isaac Brock met bassist Eric Judy and began practicing in Brock’s shed. Brock, a non-front man’s front-man, is oddly chatty and sometimes cringingly open about his life and exploits, especially for a guy who “hates” doing interviews. Perhaps it is this boiling animosity for answering life’s insipid little questions that fuels Brock’s quirky and sometimes acerbic perspective. When blended with Modest Mouse’s artfully crafted songs, the alchemy is eerily enchanting.
How often can you put in a CD and walk away for almost an hour and never feel the need to throw a brick at your player because it’s spewing a crapper in between the keepers? This is a one of those CDs.
Bitter or sweet, depending on your view, on Good News, Modest Mouse pays homage to their musical influences by generously sprinkling (or even devoting) entire songs to those with whom they have an affinity: Frank Black/the Pixies, Tom Waits, Flaming Lips, Pavement, Beck. But lest they be relegated to mere mimicking hacks, time has helped them carve their own unique sound, and Brocks lyrics are fecund with meaning, mistrust, wisdom, universal questions, and truths about God, Life and the great beyond.
My favorite track, “Bukowski,” seems almost autobiographical of Brock’s own path of drunken exploits.
I went to bed and didn’t see
why everyday turns out to be a little bit more like bukowski
and yeah, i know he’s a pretty good read
but god who’d want to be
god who’d want to be such an asshole.
The meandering pace, accompanied by gentle banjo-plucking, perfectly offsets the building crescendo and subsequent crashing of Brocks singsongy vocals. It’s easy to ignore the sardonic tone as you are pulled in by the bayou stomp.
This juxtaposition is precisely what is so brilliant about Modest Mouse. Their unique ability to create charming melodies with thoughtful, melancholy or just plain angry lyrics. Lyrics with themes that resonate with any self-reflecting person who ever wonders “Why me? Why the fuck me?”
The entire album is very eclectic in sound, varying from the alterna-pop lilt of “Float On” and “Ocean Breathes Salty,” to the roots-blues inflection of “Dance Hall” and “The Devil’s Workday,” to the earthy and folky stylings on “Bukowski,” or the gently sweeping “Blame It On The Tetons.” For an album that is all over the map sonically, I found a universal element of human-ness that is both sweet and bitter. Kind of like life.