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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.

by Corey Beasley

31 Jan 2011

Isaac Brock claims the Pixies as a seminal influence on Modest Mouse’s sound, and Frank Black and co.’s general blueprints can be found in much of the band’s material: Brock’s sing-shout vocal style, the similarly soft-loud dynamics of his group’s music itself, the overall focus on guitar, guitar, guitar. Still, beyond this shared DNA, the Pixies’ grip on Modest Mouse’s collective brain doesn’t usually seem too overt. The band even seems to acknowledge that split on “Head South”, when Brock sings, “A surf rock band / From the land of plenty / Surf rock bands / With no surf, just pine trees.” In other words, Modest Mouse is missing that one crucial element of the Pixies’ formula: Joey Santiago’s riptide-ready fretwork. These dudes are from the Pacific Northwest—they’ve got evergreens in their sound, not board shorts.

“Shit Luck” is somewhat of a different story. No, you won’t mistake Modest Mouse for the Del-tones here. However, the track might be the closest thing to a Pixies song the band’s ever recorded. The arpeggiating riff that anchors the song sees Brock going as far as he’ll go toward aping surf-ish repetitive tremolo picking. It’s surf rock filtered through the dusty grit of The Lonesome Crowded West. Think rolling waves of cars on the highway instead of fresh blue-green salt water.

by Corey Beasley

24 Jan 2011

“Long Distance Drunk” is the only track on The Lonesome Crowded West that actually sounds like a b-side. On an album full of unabashed guitar rock, “Long Distance Drunk” pushes that instrument to the side, focusing instead on Jeremiah Green’s stuttering beat and Eric Judy’s bass-guitar-by-way-of-moonshine-jug drone. Isaac Brock palm-mutes a simple acoustic chord progression, joining his bandmates in their atmosphere of rhythmic navel-gazing. In between “Out of Gas” and “Shit Luck”, it’s hard for the song not to sound like an interlude. Taken on its own, it fares somewhat better.

“Hang it up now or never”, Brock sings, “Hang it up again”. He sounds tentative, a fitting tone for that slight hesitation that comes before you call your ex on a tequila-fueled whim. “Eight AM and someone calls you on the telephone / You want to be by yourself and all alone”, he’ll sing later, his vocals pushed into the back of the mix, almost an afterthought. It is an afterthought, after all, since he knows he’ll make the call, anyway. You’d do the same thing, wouldn’t you?

The track’s repetitive lyrics don’t hit as hard or in quite the same manner as the rest of Brock’s writing on the album. But then, they’re not supposed to. “Hang it up now or never / Hang it up again / Long distance drunk”—these are the stakes, slight in the bigger picture but painfully large when you’re sitting there with the telephone and a spinning room around you. Nicole Johnson’s airy vocals provide a nice counterpoint to Brock’s plaintiveness and do just enough to keep things from getting too self-indulgent. Perhaps swapping out this track for “Baby Blue Sedan”, (included on the vinyl pressing of the record), would’ve made sense to many fans, but we have “Long Distance Drunk”. Sometimes understatement can work just as well.

by Corey Beasley

17 Jan 2011

“Out of Gas” marks something of a détente in The Lonesome Crowded West, an emotional cooling. Isaac Brock’s gently-whammied riff bounces along at a leisurely pace, as his bandmates follow suit and keep things toned down. The riff, as the central focus on the song, is as subtle of an earworm as anything else Brock produces on the record. In other words, “Out of Gas” marks the first real foray of The Lonesome Crowded West into straightforward pop songwriting. You can trace that pop streak through the band’s early catalog fairly easily, from its beginnings in “Breakthrough” on to “Out of Gas” and “Polar Opposites” (we’ll get to that soon enough) and into “Third Planet” and “Paper Thin Walls”. The rest of that trajectory, of course, should be well known to anyone who owned a radio in 2004.

Critics who dismiss Modest Mouse’s pop sensibilities generally began to do so after the band started to have some commercial success. That goes to say that fans embraced older songs like “Out of Gas” (and those Moon & Antarctica tracks up there, even more so) readily and without complaint (it’s also worth mentioning, if we’re taking this path, that We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank seems continually misunderstood by many listeners, derided as a too-polished “radio record” when it in fact holds the band’s most aggressive—and aggressively loud—material since, well, The Lonesome Crowded West). Whatever controversy the hit single “Float On” and its ilk would later create, the fact remains that Modest Mouse was, from the very outset, able to craft remarkable pop songs when it so chose. “Out of Gas” is one such gem, easy to overlook, surrounded as it is by show-stopping tracks on the rest of this album. Of course, it’s that very restraint that makes it successful.

by Corey Beasley

10 Jan 2011

If The Lonesome Crowded West’s default mode is mouth-foaming anger, “Trailer Trash” is the wounded heart at the center of the album. Its laconic despair goes a long way toward expressing the other side of Isaac Brock and Modest Mouse’s vitriol, the place of real, self-lacerating hurt where all that rage actually comes from. Here, for the first and perhaps only time on the record, Brock seems uncomfortable—or at least dejected—in his mantle of the blue-collar prophet. If the song, like so many others, focuses on the story of a failed relationship, it does so in order to bring out the vivid particulars of Brock’s narrative style and characterization. The sense of poverty—the emotional poverty, yes, but also the actual, abject poverty—Brock conveys is just as integral to the song’s impact and vision as the lovelorn imagery he creates. True to Modest Mouse form, both poverties are cycles, seemingly impossible to escape.

Both Brock and Eric Judy spend the majority of the song with their instruments locked in a single chord progression, Brock alternating between scratchy palm-muting and well-placed bursts of power chords and Judy laying down the song’s primary melody in a head-bobbing bassline. That repetition, combined with Jeremiah Green’s tom-heavy beat sitting front-and-center in the mix, gives the track an almost trance-like focus similar to that seen in its emotional counterpart, “Heart Cooks Brain”. The verses’ locked-solid foundation, by virtue of their steady consistency, also points the listener’s attention toward Brock’s lyrics. It’s easy to quickly internalize such a rhythmic piece of music, so our ears are free to actively pick out the details in Brock’s narrative while the rest of our body nods along in reflexive step to the beat.

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