Modest Mouse’s fourth album, 2004’s Good News for People Who Love Bad News, arrived at an odd, off-kilter moment in pop history. The walls between the mainstream and the underground had come unexpectedly tumbling down. Suddenly the freaks were storming the gates and such unlikely stars as the Arcade Fire, the Walkmen and Death Cab for Cutie were garnering radio play and album sales. The cause is unclear. It’s possible that the teen melodrama The OC is a much greater cultural arbiter than most of us would like to admit, or else it’s just a cyclical thing, no different from the grunge explosion that had the record-label suits raiding the Pacific Northwest, signing everybody in a flannel shirt and dirty jeans, or the early ’70s, when the hippies and weirdoes reigned supreme. In any case, we had such a moment about five years ago, and it led to the supremely weird spectacle of slouch-eyed, misanthropic indie heroes Modest Mouse being covered by the entire cast of American Idol in a Ford commercial.
Singer Isaac Brock and his band of unmerry men walked right into the bright lights, unblinking. Good News… happened to be their catchiest and most accessible album, but it didn’t represent a major departure from their jerky sound or ramshackle aesthetic of millennial dread, speedball anxiety and gut-bucket poetry. It did boast the single “Float On”, an ice cream cone of a song, their most delicious and hopeful track to date, a magical pop number by a little indie band that improbably found its proper home on the radios and in the ears of millions of listeners. But “Float On” was an anomaly — becoming the owners of a smash hit single didn’t turn Modest Mouse into a pop group. By the time their next album, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts (!), they were largely back to their old miserablist antics.
Their new mini-album, No One’s First and You’re Next, is a collection of odds and ends, recent singles, B-sides and outtakes. These are leftovers? They don’t sound like castoffs to me — they sound like album tracks. Half of the songs here are as good as anything on We Were Dead…. Impressively, these eight songs that didn’t make it onto the LPs could serve as a primer for Modest Mouse, showing a skillful and idiosyncratic band at the height of its powers.
Brock’s trademarks — his half-swallowed yawp, his catchy little melodies that get bitten off before they’re able to resolve — have been slightly toned down, but they’re still ever-present. “Guilty Cocker Spaniels” is one of the best showcases yet for his charming bozo squawk, as he yelps the talk-song at you, lending the shaggy-dog lyrics a palpable urgency. Brock sounds like the cranky drunk at the end of the bar, holding forth hilariously and slightly annoyingly on his philosophies and grievances, until, out of nowhere, a battalion of Johnny Marr’s buzzing guitars storm the place, nearly drowning out the semi-coherent rambling. It’s an unexpected moment, two unrelated songs suddenly colliding like ships in the night, neither willing to give way to the other. They somehow carry on together, half broken, sailing slowly off into the dark as the pieces fall away.
The rollicking, melodic “Autumn Beds” proves that even on auto-pilot, Modest Mouse can deliver the goods. Armed with little more than a lovely meandering banjo figure, a mellow country-rock rhythm and an endlessly repeated lyric (“We won’t be sleeping in our autumn beds.”), the track is unassumingly beautiful, pretty in a way that the group rarely is. Brock’s increasingly willing to lay down his quirky vocal tics and just sing, reaching for something elegiac and lovely, if only for moments here and there. It’s a track that reminds you just how little these people need in the way of tools. Their usual moves — Brock’s anxious staccato guitar lines and odd vocals, Jeremiah Green’s rubbery, jazz-influenced drumming, strengths on display throughout the record — are conspicuously absent for this one track, and it’s one of their best. Maybe that explains the little grace notes, the sly smiles, the hints of increasing mellowness and accessibility that have begun seeping into Modest Mouse albums. Growing more comfortable with their talents, maybe they’re learning that you don’t always have to work so hard and worry so much. Sometimes, you can just float on.