[18 November 2010]
Modest Mouse’s first proper album, This Is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About (1996), gained the band a steady cult following right out of the gate, and rightly so. The album, made when frontman Isaac Brock was only 21 years old, contains some of the band’s finest songs: “Dramamine”, “Breakthrough”, “Custom Concern”, “Talking Shit About a Pretty Sunset”, “Ohio”. Tracks like these already had everything that makes Modest Mouse such a phenomenal band, from Brock’s masterful ear for melody to his band’s enormous rhythmical chops to his remarkably prescient lyrics and emotive delivery. The band would solidify their sound and make their first truly essential album in Long Drive’s follow-up, The Lonesome Crowded West (1997). The rest is indie rock history.
Of course, Long Drive wasn’t initially meant to be Modest Mouse’s introduction to the world. The band wrote and recorded Sad Sappy Sucker two years prior to that album’s release, but eventually decided to scrap the record in favor of Long Drive’s more fully-realized compositions. Brock and company finally gave Sucker a proper release in 2001, and now he and Modest Mouse are reissuing it—and 1997’s The Fruit That Ate Itself EP—for hazy reasons. Neither the album nor the EP contain additional tracks, but one supposes that, if nothing else, the reissues offer dedicated fans the option to own both records on vinyl. Whatever the case, both reissues invite a reassessment of the band’s formative years, and each proves interesting and engaging in somewhat differing ways.
Isaac Brock sounds young on Sad Sappy Sucker. Strikingly young. These days, his grizzled and tour-tested voice has become Modest Mouse’s strongest instrument, carrying the songs on We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank (2007) with the force and versatility of his vocal performances. Here, on Sucker, he oscillates from an adolescent whine to a fevered bark (though one several octaves higher than the guttural growls he now manages), though he always sounds sincere. His guitar playing already displays his supernatural gift for melody and cinema, whether meandering into a groove on “Birds Vs Worms” or shredding into the stratosphere on “Every Penny Fed Car”. It’s this sense of musicianship, both Brock’s and those of drummer Jeremiah Green and bassist Eric Judy, that best hints at Modest Mouse’s chops to come.
Brock hadn’t yet sharpened his pen to a razor point, and his lyrics on Sucker trend toward laconic observations rather than the full-throated hallucinatory screeds with which he’d later make his name. “You can see that birds and worms don’t get along,” he sings in one song, etching just the beginnings of a metaphor for interpersonal relationships; “Mice eat cheese / And for the most part, they do as they please, / But cat comes home…,” he sings in another, functionally enough but showing little of the brilliance for imagery he’d conjure on Long Drive.
Still, there are some winners, here. “Every Penny Fed Car” thunders along on Jeremiah Green’s toms while Brock tries to break every string on his guitar. “It Always Rains on a Picnic” builds to a satisfying coda (and shows the roots of the riff from “Talking Shit About a Pretty Sunset”), while “Dukes Up” displays the band’s penchant for the drama of stop-start dynamics. “From Point A to Point B (Infinity)” is the clear standout, anchored by a catchy and driving bassline from Judy, played in perfect lockstep with Green. Lyrically, Brock investigates what would become his trademark obsession, the nature of the wide-open spaces of America and their tendency to encourage loneliness and emotional desolation. “Point A to point B, / oh I know,” he sings plaintively, “lots of points with no points in between, for me. / So lonely but / never alone, I know, / I’m at my house but I wish that I were at home.” The track gains momentum and bursts into a tightly-coiled chorus, before melting into a confounding harmonium outro that sucks away the energy Brock and his band have so expertly worked to build. It’s an example of a songwriter’s head filled with ideas, each jockeying for primacy and canceling each other out in the process. Nevertheless, it’s fascinating to see Brock and Modest Mouse succeed when they do on Sad Sappy Sucker, and well worth the intrigue of the exercise. (Talk about intrigue: the latter half of the record consists of Brock’s early demos left on a friend’s answering machine.) If nothing else, it’s a wonderful opportunity to see one of the best bands of the last several decades taking their first steps.
The Fruit That Ate Itself, recorded around the same time as The Lonesome Crowded West, shows how far the band would come in a mere several years. Peppered with interludes of backwards guitar and drums, a nod to the burgeoning experimental side that Brock would bring to completion in The Moon & Antarctica (2000), the proper songs on the EP display a diversity of sound and focus in songwriting generally lacking on Sad Sappy Sucker. “The Waydown” remains a shamefully underappreciated cut, a ballad with real edge. “You move your mouth and you start to talk,” a slightly older Brock sings, “you close your eyes and then lose the thought.” “The Waydown” uses the elements present in “Point A to Point B (Infinity)”—central bassline, soft-loud dynamics, palpable tension—but possesses confidence enough to let those ingredients play out to their natural conclusion.
“Dirty Fingernails” sees Brock abusing his guitar and vocal chords in equal measure, wringing noises from each that get the hairs on the back of the neck standing on end. It’s a burst of raw anger, a force absent from Sucker but present in spades on Long Drive and the rest of the band’s best material. “Sunspots in the House of the Late Scapegoat” tones things down again, a head-nodding beat and Brock’s palm-muted power chords suggesting the aimless trips down endless highways resonant in the Modest Mouse catalog. “The Fruit That Ate Itself” scratches the band’s itch for dub-influenced experimentation, the trippy bassline and breakbeat drumming providing a cloud of stoned rhythmic space to support Brock’s raw-throated, crazed nonsense poetry. “Are you gonna be your own goddamn best friend?” he asks, in a moment of clarity. “Summer” and “Karma’s Payment” end the EP on a note of uplift and pop songcraft, both songs bouncing with peppy energy and laden with hooks. The Fruit That Ate Itself can rightfully be looked at as a group of outtakes of which Modest Mouse needed to purge themselves before creating the opus of The Lonesome Crowded West. Still, it, like Sad Sappy Sucker, gives us a much-appreciated glimpse into the workings of one of our most seasoned and insanely talented bands. That doesn’t count for nothing.