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by Corey Beasley

3 Jan 2011


Claiming “Cowboy Dan” as your favorite Modest Mouse song marks you as a particular type of fan: someone with too much pent-up aggression to choose “Third Planet”, or more appreciative of pure volume than those who would pick “Dramamine”, or in desperate need of an epic, sprawling fix that “Broke” just can’t provide. If The Moon & Antarctica stands as the Rubicon that divides the band’s devotees into two camps (pre-or-post high production values, more or less), “Cowboy Dan” is the near-consensus pick for the Holy Shit Have You Heard This Yet Shut Up and Listen award in the band’s catalog for fans allied to Modest Mouse’s true indie days. These types of fans (whose ranks include your writer, for what it’s worth) tend to treat Isaac Brock as a reverend, a firebrand preacher of a decidedly singular and manic-depressive gospel. “Cowboy Dan”, if you follow, is Pastor Ike’s strongest sermon. Think Jonathan Edwards in overalls, spewing forth not “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, but “God in the Hands of Some Seriously Angry Sinners”.

As mentioned in this series’ previous entry, “Doin’ the Cockroach” lays the emotional foundation for the track, that song’s final moments of cathartic vitriol giving way perfectly to “Cowboy Dan’s” more sustained rage. “Doin’ the Cockroach” takes its time to boil over, but “Cowboy Dan” scorches right from the start. Brock generally shies away from directly narrative songwriting, but here he gives us a protagonist in the literal sense, a titular character through whom he’s able to color his vision of the American West as a sun-bleached and soul-scarring wasteland. In the opening verse, he sings: “Well, Cowboy Dan’s a major player in the cowboy scene, he / Goes to the reservation, drinks and gets mean, he / Goes to the desert, fires his rifle in the sky, and says / ‘God, if I have to die, you will have to die!’”. This is Blood Meridian in 4/4 meter. This is an American songwriter stabbing blindly at his culture’s open-air failures. “Float On”, this is not.

by Corey Beasley

13 Dec 2010


Here it comes, to borrow a phrase. “Doin’ the Cockroach” marks the beginning of a trilogy of sorts on The Lonesome Crowded West. That three-part progression, moving through to “Cowboy Dan” and “Trailer Trash”, remains perhaps the most thrilling movement in Modest Mouse’s extensive career. All three tracks remain fan favorites and live staples—and for good reason. They represent Modest Mouse at its creative peak, or at least the peak of this era in its songwriting. While later releases would move into longer song structures and psychedelic experimentalism (The Moon & Antarctica) and hook-heavy, Americana-laced eclecticism (Good News for People Who Love Bad News), the band who wrote “Doin’ the Cockroach” was still that now increasingly rare beast: an honest-to-God guitar unit of the utmost focused intensity. Isaac Brock and company wanted to play loud, wanted to get you moving, and wanted to communicate full-throated and entirely potent emotive experiences in the process.

“I was in heaven / I was in hell / Believe in neither, but / Fear ‘em, as well”, sings Brock to start, barking those last few words in a way that almost sounds like a command. His guitar screams there, too, four quick power chords matching his staccato rhythm as his instrumental melody welds itself precisely to that of his vocals. As the verse continues, Brock paints a lightly surrealistic scene of long-distance travel, his pet theme on the album. He takes inventory of his fellow riders, alternately moving together on a subway, a Greyhound bus, an Amtrak train, each person more unbearable than the last. “PLEASE SHUT UP” becomes his refrain, yelled hoarsely over those brittle chords. The stop-start, soft-loud dynamics, combined with the unhinged imagery of the lyrics, create a queasy and unsettled atmosphere, as if we were riding with Brock on the trip through uneven, hostile terrain. The last traveler he describes sets up the song’s titular image: “This one’s a crazer / Day-dreaming disaster / The origin of junkfood / Rutting through garbage / Tasty but worthless / Dogs eat their own shit / We’re doin’ the cockroach—yeah!”

by Corey Beasley

6 Dec 2010


When asked to clarify the “meaning” of “Jesus Christ Was an Only Child”, Isaac Brock once said, “It’s not true. He had a brother” .

The guy doesn’t like interviews, sure. Still, it’s a dumb question. Songwriters, more than artists in any other medium, are forced again and again to expound upon the meaning of their works. Does this line of questioning indicate something about our attitudes toward pop music? Do we, even after all this time, not trust pop music to speak for itself? Are we anxious that, ultimately, pop music is devoid of any real insight or grand artistic sentiment, unless its purveyors can somehow point us—outside of the songs, themselves—toward the light?

Whatever. If it’s anyone’s, it’s our job—not the artists’—to write about what it is that songs, or paintings or films or sculptures or buildings, communicate to us. “Jesus Christ Was an Only Child”, for its part, is one of the more opaque tracks on The Lonesome Crowded West (what to make of those lines about “internet cash”?). The emotional tenor comes through, per usual, strong enough: anger, frustration, a nihilistic twinge of humor. Musically, the song indulges Brock and co.’s taste for Americana. Modest Mouse had already broken out the banjo and fiddle for earlier songs like “Mechanical Birds/Make Everyone Happy”, and the band will go on to do it with more frequency, tossing in some New Orleans-style brass, on later tracks like “Satin in a Coffin”, “The Devil’s Workday”. and “King Rat”. Here, Brock abuses an acoustic guitar while guest musician Tyler Reilly lays down a suitably country-fried fiddle accompaniment. These stylings never seem mere affectations—Brock’s already established his blue-collar voice with enough authority to warrant the experimentation, and the thin layer of grit that spreads itself over the recording doesn’t hurt, either.

by Corey Beasley

29 Nov 2010


“She was going with a cinematographer / Everyone knew that he was really a pornographer!” yelps Isaac Brock at the beginning of “Lounge (Closing Time)”. He’s always had an ear for verbal rhythms—ten years later, Johnny Marr would talk about the recording process for We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank and how Brock would belt out freestyle lyrics over the two men’s guitar sessions to astonishing effects. This natural talent for flow and rhythmical pyrotechnics shows itself in his musicianship as well, as “Lounge (Closing Time)” bounces along on the disco guitar stylings that Brock often uses to inject into his compositions a hip-shaking impulse that takes their visceral results to the next level. “I’ve got a girlfriend out / Of the city / I know / I like her, I think / She is pretty” he sings later, in flawless lockstep with his stuttering riff.

“Lounge (Closing Time)” can be seen as something of a sister song to a track on the band’s previous LP, This Is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About, titled—simply—“Lounge”. Both employ those dance-inflected rhythms and jittery tension to tell tales of vaguely unsettling nighttime liaisons between Brock’s narrator and a woman, their rendezvous filtered through a general lens of drunken haziness and disturbed consciences. Both, too, begin hyperactively before slowing into extended down-tempo outros, the musical equivalent to the crash that comes after the drugs start to wear off. “They all went down and did the porcupine / And everybody was feeling high”, Brock sings with manic energy, before the line about his out-of-town girlfriend, the revelation of which brings the change in the song’s mood.

by Corey Beasley

22 Nov 2010


“Convenient Parking” (and its later sister song, “Trucker’s Atlas”) reveals The Lonesome Crowded West for what it is at its core: a driving album. The track’s repetitive lyrics, its constantly coiling tension, and its fixation on car culture place you behind the wheel on a long drive whether you’d like to be there or not. The song insistently threatens to explode into a caterwaul of unabashed rock, but it never does. It’s a sly play on Modest Mouse’s part, and it displays the attention to theme and cohesion they bring to every track on this record.

“Soon the chain reaction started in the parking lot”, Brock sings in an almost conversational tone, “Waiting to bleed onto the big streets / And bleed out onto the highways / And off to other cities / Built to store and sell these rocks / Well, weren’t you feeling real dirty sitting in your car, with nothing / Waiting to bleed onto the big streets…” And so goes the circular pattern of the verse, the type of lyrical looping that Brock often uses to great success. Fitting his lyrics into a groove, one that spins and spins on repeat, is just the right move when writing about the feeling of stagnation with which “Convenient Parking” concerns itself. Few lyricists pay such literary attention to how form reflects content, and Brock—for all his trucker sentiments—proves himself here to be a writer of real intellectualized merit.

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