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by George de Stefano

7 Mar 2011

An acoustic guitar and a rocking chair, set against a green background. You could hardly ask for a more nondescript album cover. But that image has become iconic because of the extraordinary music inside the unremarkable packaging. In fact, the album has come to be known by its cover art. Chess Records titled the disk Howlin’ Wolf when the Chicago-based company released it in 1962. But everyone, or at least every serious blues aficionado, knows this collection of 12 tracks by Chester “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnett simply as “the rocking chair album” .

Rocking Chair—as I will call it from here on—comprises tracks recorded from 1957 to 1961, most of which were released as singles. But it has the stylistic unity and focus of a recording conceived as a whole. It is one of the greatest blues records ever made, as well as an ur-text for many rock and R&B artists. Here’s a partial list: the Doors, Cream, the Who, Sam Cooke, Etta James, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, the Grateful Dead, the Pointer Sisters, Koko Taylor, the White Stripes, Lucinda Williams, and especially the Rolling Stones, who covered two of its tracks, “Little Red Rooster” and “Little Baby”.

by Corey Beasley

28 Feb 2011

“Styrofoam Boots / It’s All Nice on Ice, Alright” begins with some fleet-fingered acoustic work by Isaac Brock, his voice slightly distorted, as if he downsized his band to a single-man shower stall recording studio. He’s back to mulling his old devils, those questions of God and man and who’s going to come out on top, in the end. This time, though, Brock’s tone sounds quietly unperturbed as he pours over those concerns—lighthearted ones, you know, like whether or not God exists and, if he does, if he actually has our best interests at heart. “Well, all’s not well, but I’m told it’ll all be quite nice”, he sings as if to himself, “You’ll be drowned in boots like mafia, but your feet’ll still float like Christ”. Think about that image: Brock’s got that walk-on-water routine covered, just in the wrong direction. If that’s not a frame-it-and-put-it-in-the-Met picture of human foibles, I don’t know what could be.

See, Brock’s not out-and-out denying the presence of a higher power. “I’m in heaven trying to figure out which stack”, he continues, “They’re gonna stuff us atheists into, when Peter and his monkey laugh / And I laugh with them—not sure what at / They point and say, ‘We’ll keep you in the back’”. That’s not an antagonistic relationship. God’s doorman lets him in, even though Brock doesn’t even believe that God owns the place. Sure, he’ll be in the backroom, “polishing halos, baking manna and gas”, but he’s still up there. It’s notable, too, that it’s not Brock but a barroom stranger, “looking a bit like everyone I ever seen”, who comes off as spiteful, saying, “Anytime anyone gets on their knees to pray, well, it makes my tailbone ring”. The stranger believes that “God takes care of himself / And you of you”. That Brock puts these words in the mouth of someone else, the type so slick that he “moves just like Crisco disco” and polished enough to “breathe one-hundred percent Listerine”—that’s telling. The better part of Brock’s mind might agree, but there’s another part that just can’t go along with it. That’s the part of him that thinks St. Peter’s probably not such a bad guy, after all. His doubt, his unwillingness to completely cede a reluctant acknowledgment of the possibilities of faith, that’s what keeps him writing about God and existential crises through all of his albums. If he knew for sure, it wouldn’t interest him anymore.

by Corey Beasley

21 Feb 2011

“Bankrupt on Selling” is a rare breed in Modest Mouse’s gruff bestiary: an acoustic ballad. The Lonesome Crowded West previously had the acoustic guitar take the forefront on “Jesus Christ Was an Only Child”, but that track is just as raw and seething as the most plugged-in material on this record. “Bankrupt on Selling”, on the other hand, takes things into definitively different territory. Isaac Brock has written a few of these in his tenure—“Lives” from The Moon & Antarctica(2000) and the much-maligned “Blame It on the Tetons” from Good News for People Who Love Bad News(2004) come to mind. But where that Good News track teeters dangerously on the edge of tedium, “Bankrupt on Selling” manages its melancholy with an expert hand, making it one of the most moving songs on an album full of full-steam heartwrenchers.

Rarely one to use minor chords to carry the weight of his most lacerating lyrics, Brock indulges on “Bankrupt on Selling”. The song’s basic four-chord progression does use the minor key in the way typical of perpetually lachrymose singer-songwriters, but the resonance of the track rests in the other elements of its composition. Original guitarist Dann Gallucci provides an airy, subtle accompaniment to Brock’s foundation, his clean electric picking through the melody and supplementing it without overtaking the mix. In fact, Brock shoulders the whole brunt of the performance, without Eric Judy’s rhythmic counterpoints or Jeremiah Green’s busy drumming to provide support. He does so with grace, a word not often associated with Modest Mouse’s squall.

by Corey Beasley

14 Feb 2011

Isaac Brock doesn’t mope. His songs have their share of navel gazing, of minor chords and heart wringing. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a track where Brock sounds indulgent, caught up in the personal mythologizing—the romanticizing of your own private pains—that comes so often with depression. The Lonesome Crowded West is full of songs about being stuck or stalled out. “Polar Opposites” is another one of them. However, like “Heart Cooks Brain” or “Trailer Trash” or the other more overtly melancholy tracks on the album, “Polar Opposites” doesn’t shuffle along, mumbling to itself in a sad-sack reverie. Instead, Brock and Modest Mouse turn frustration into energy, anthemizing listlessness in a way that only the best of rock n’ roll music can do.

As mentioned before in these pages, “Polar Opposites” sees Modest Mouse leaning heavily on its pop sensibilities. On an album as raw and aggressive as The Lonesome Crowded West, this type of songwriting could seem out of place, but the band knows so well how to write a hook, how to use melody and major chords to command attention, that “Polar Opposites” represents just another peak in the album’s trajectory. It’s the track you’d lift from the album and play for your friend who needs to be eased into a record as disarmingly dense as this one. It goes down easy.

by Corey Beasley

7 Feb 2011

If The Lonesome Crowded West is an album born of and fixated upon car culture, “Truckers Atlas” is the engine at the heart of it. Modest Mouse frontman Isaac Brock’s ultimate—and ultimately frustrated—vision of gasoline-fueled escapism, the track fires on all cylinders for upwards of ten minutes. Brock’s narrator here speeds back and forth across the country from Alaska to Florida, New York to Arizona, and finds nothing but emptiness and isolation in America’s open road promises. Jack Kerouac, take a seat and learn something.

Musically, “Truckers Atlas” gives us some of Modest Mouse’s most focused performances, each member of the band locking into rhythm as tightly as the Jaws of Life biting into twisted metal. Jeremiah Green lays down perhaps the most inspired beat of his life, a flurry of toms and snare and hi-hat (and that delectably placed chime on the bell of his ride cymbal) that provides the track with enough muscle to make Brock’s odometer abuse sound believable. If we could figure out a way to liquefy that beat and siphon it into our gas tanks, we’d all be set for life. Brock and Eric Judy hit upon riffs at once raw and smoothly danceable, displaying the mastery of syncopation so integral to the band’s sound. The composition is—all right, fine—a well-oiled machine, never faltering for a moment.

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