Who is Modest Mouse in 2015? By any measure, the band is past the creative peak of The Lonesome Crowded West (1997) and The Moon & Antarctica (2000). Or, by any measure except one: commercially, the band’s post-Moon phase has been by far its most successful, with 2004’s “Float On” becoming one of the most successful rock crossover hits of the decade, and We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank (2007) debuting at number one on the Billboard charts. The band routinely headlines festivals and tours relentlessly. Modest Mouse, in 2015, is a professional band, through and through.
To wit: view the sheer volume of instruments onstage at a Modest Mouse show, not to mention the seven people needed to play them. For a band long known for its ramshackle, hit-hard-or-miss-totally shows, the group’s slow transformation into a comparatively slick, polished, tour-bus sized unit can be something of a shock to a longterm fan. But what the band — and especially its leader, Isaac Brock — may lack these days in unpredictability, it makes up for in solidity. If you go to a Modest Mouse show in 2015, they will sound great. They will play songs from each of their proper albums. They will, in other words, sound like professionals going through songs they’ve long since mastered.
This confidence was on display recently at Webster Hall, on the first night of the band’s sold-out, two-day stay in New York. Modest Mouse has become so completely a live act that Brock had to cancel tour dates to carve out time to record Strangers to Ourselves, the band’s first record in eight years, and the album that provided the bulk of the night’s live material. Brock and company took to the stage with Strangers closer “Of Course We Know,” one of the record’s weaker songs, which nonetheless sounded massive and full of portent live. The crowd immediately burst into life, likely as much as a reaction to actually knowing the song — Strangers to Ourselves had only just been released — to the thrill of finally seeing the band in New York City again.
Album: Strangers to Ourselves
Label: Epic / Glacial Pace
US Release Date: 2015-03-17
UK Release Date: 2015-03-16
As ever, the show itself hinged on Modest Mouse’s best, most crucial instrument: Isaac Brock’s voice. His vocals were blessedly pushed front and center into the mix, and he yelped, barked, growled and, yes, sang his way through classics like “A Different City”, “Third Planet”, and “Dramamine”, the latter of which has become the band’s finest live song, cementing its place in the indie rock canon as one of the best guitar songs of the last 30 years. The most rousing moment of the night, and the one that sent the crowd into the frothiest frenzy, was the set’s lone offering from The Lonesome Crowded West, the disco-punk showstopper “Doin’ the Cockroach”. The track, all jittery guitar and deranged vocals, absolutely slays in a live setting, and one can’t help but miss the days when Modest Mouse wrote such palpably electric, hip-shaking material.
And as unfair and frankly boring as it is to say, “Oh, I wish the band played more of the early stuff,” the setlist itself couldn’t help but highlight the strengths and weaknesses of the band’s discography. With a discography so deep, do we really still need to hear “Black Cadillacs” or “Fire It Up”, as we have at most of the band’s shows since the mid-’00s? This is a small complaint, as both songs sounded fantastic on a technical level. But Brock himself even seems to be slightly bored of them, as if going through the motions. He was at his most energetic, understandably, with the newest material; he packed cuts like “The Best Room” and “Ansel” with anthemic feeling.
Brock even seemed passionate when playing “Float On”, which isn’t a given on the setlist at any Modest Mouse show, in a nice nod to the band’s anti-establishment roots. Could this be because that song, unlike “Black Cadillacs”, “Fire It Up”, or “Bury Me With It” holds its own against the highlights of the band’s career? You can hardly fault Brock for seeming tired onstage (though you can fault him for cutting “King Rat” right when it was about to kick into its most thrilling, unbalanced moments), but you could say he deserves a break from the road. With a little time to rest, and some rethinking about which songs work best now that his band has the power to play anything, anywhere, Modest Mouse could become that rare creature: a professional touring band that still manages to harness a sense of explosive spontaneity. We’d miss them while they were gone, but we’d welcome them back with open arms.
Photo credits: Sachyn Mital