Modest Mouse—Part 3: We Still Have the Radio

[23 May 2007]

By Ryan S. Henriquez

Modest Mouse opened the evening with the raucous bang of “Bury Me with It”—the current-conducting copper wire that is Modest Mouse’s sound stripped bare and wagging wildly after only a few chords. For a moment I thought we might be in store for some self-mutilation, but the storm clouds soon broke and the mood brightened with the first notes of “Paper Thin Walls,” one of only two songs the band would play from The Moon & Antarctica (Epic, 2000). The song left little doubt that tracks dating back far beyond the “Float On” era had the capacity to be radio-friendly singles—would that the stars had aligned. It transitioned seamlessly into “Dashboard,” the first single off We Were Dead and, unmistakably, this album’s “Float On,” a tune with all the makings of the song of the summer.

Standing a few feet to Brock’s right, just oozing cool, newest Modest Mouse member and ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr dialed into the infectious driving bass groove of “Dashboard.” In the musical equivalent of David Beckham coming stateside, Marr was originally brought into the fold to help Brock write songs for We Were Dead. Things clicked, and he was invited to play some shows with the band before being tapped as a full-fledged member. Make no mistake; this is still the Isaac Brock Show, but Marr’s romantic, sweeping, British swagger both in the studio and on stage presents a remarkable foil to the salt-of-the-American-earth Brock. Marr’s guitars cascade like a waterfall over Brock’s raw atmospheres—not softening the blow, just making it hit cleaner. Brock is the fist, and Marr is the blanket you wrap it in before punching through a plate glass window: a smart move and equally effective, just with slightly less blood and collateral damage.

As far as frontmen go, Brock is the polar opposite of Morrissey—if it’s one thing he can’t do, it’s mope. Meanwhile, Marr is like a newly-uncaged animal, reveling as much in the aggressive raw Mouse sound as he is in the newfound freedom its messiness allows. Moreover, Marr seems to enjoy playing songs from the band’s backcatalog—the songs he didn’t help write—the most. On “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes,” Marr’s back-and-forth, subtle sway locked the audience into the song’s unstoppable momentum, a modulating counter-point to Brock’s shrieking, belched-out chorus—it was like the best elements of rave techno in an unlikely shotgun marriage to the best elements of heavy metal. Bombs overhead and heads exploding left and right. Best song of the night.

Marr managed the lion’s share of backing vocals (oh yeah, he can sing, too!), providing fine harmonies to Brock’s fits and starts. Only on tracks when he was asked to sing James Mercer’s parts—the Shins’ frontman and fellow Portland-by-way-of-somewhere-else native contributes vocals to three tracks on We Were Dead—did he fall a bit short. But that didn’t prevent “Florida” from reaching soaring heights of sublime, distilled beauty before abruptly falling back into a raging sea of guitars, drums, and the cymbal crashes of not one, but two drummers. 

Indeed, it’s worth noting that, both on stage and in the studio, Isaac Brock is the Steve Nash of indie rock. He brings out the very best in the people who play with him, revving them to meet his intensity and realize their full potential. Everyone talks about what a coup it was for Brock to nab Johnny Marr, but really it’s the opposite—Marr is lucky to have hitched his horse to exactly the right post. Brock deserves credit for Marr’s rebirth, and, not to slight the Shins’ superb recent effort, but arguably James Mercer’s best vocals of 2007 (Check “We’ve Got Everything” and “Missed the Boat” for evidence of this adultery.)  It’s no wonder Brock once moonlighted in A&R for Sub Pop Records; he performs much the same function inside his own band.

Predictably, “Float On” was a favorite of exactly half of the crowd, but it felt a little rushed and not nearly as inspired as “Education,” possibly the strongest song on the new album. Listening to the vocal barks over the most intense of rocksteady beats, the effect is so viscerally powerful that it makes the listener uncomfortable at times. Indeed, for as many tear-inducing ballads and summer anthems there are on We Were Dead (or even Good News), there are just as many course tracks marked with MM’s signature haunted screeches, skids, and guitar freakouts.

Conversely, the whispered and touching lyrics of “Trailer Park” reminded the audience that Modest Mouse was making heartrending tributes to human struggles at least as far back as 1997’s The Lonesome Crowded West. Towards the end of the number, I was struck dumb by Brock’s guitar playing. Frontmen who double as equally energetic lead guitarists are few and far between, and at one point Brock turned, jerked, shook, and wagged his guitar at the speaker to create a feedback effect: I swear, sparks flew and time stopped. It was the prototypical Modest Mouse moment of controlled recklessness that somehow became transcendent. Brock had struck the elusive “sacred chord” that Leonard Cohen and Jeff Buckley go on about.

Brock and company rounded out the set with “The View,” and the energetic chorus got the audience screaming along at the top of its lungs. A palpable spiritual connection to something much larger than oneself—Reverend Ike had for a moment once again united his congregation into one nation under Brock. This moment proved to eclipse the two-song encore of “Ocean Breathes Salty” and “Spitting Venom,” despite the latter’s lyric tease of “I Came as a Rat” which had the old-school fans salivating, if not speaking in tongues. With the sermon ended, Brock abruptly left the stage like a businessman who’d just closed a deal, while Marr lingered a bit, offering up a warmer bow of “Good Night and God Bless” as he slowly sauntered off into the wings.

In total, the artistic merit of Modest Mouse’s output has remained solidly consistent. The spark of youth that singed itself into those early albums may have been snuffed out by the onset of maturity, but at no point did the genius illuminated by that spark disappear or diminish. Brock’s music remains both personal and relatable—he is flawed and he is one of us, singing almost always of “we” and not “I,” and he stirs emotions common to all who take the time to really listen. It is this consistency that makes both old-school and new-school fans so passionate about the songs and albums most resonant to them. In this way, perhaps both schools are right after all.

Modest Mouse will probably always divide its fans, and that’s what will continue to make them such a compelling act to follow. If his band’s last two albums and recent live shows are any sign, Brock is an artist who has turned a corner and is getting a firmer grip on his abilities (with the injection of Marr only further steadying his hand). In spite (or perhaps because) of what life has thrown at him, he has gained perspective on what’s important—he means it when he sings, “If it takes shit to make bliss, well I feel pretty blissfully.” Moreover, he’s learning how to balance this perspective against the weight of responsibility he has as an artist blessed with such scary, bottomless wells of talent. An in-control Isaac Brock should frighten and excite as much as, if not more than, a Brock who is teetering on the brink. So no matter what, don’t avert your eyes. Keep watching. Keep praying.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/modest-mouse-part-3/