Modest Mouse -- Part 1: I miss you when you're around

Brian Bartels

In section one of a three-part series chronicling recent chart topper Modest Mouse's rise and the fallout from their newfound flirtation with fame and fortune, PopMatters reexamines a pre-breakthrough concert bummer.

Modest Mouse

Modest Mouse -- Part 1: I miss you when you're around

City: New York, NY
Venue: Bowery Ballroom
Date: 2006-11-17

Editor’s note: This review originally ran on PopMatters in December 2006. My buddy called me earlier that day, sick as a dog, with that dreaded tone people use when they’re ringing a friend to cancel plans. He’d been nursing “some cold I can’t get rid of, or something” for a few days. Though he was the one who asked me to attend the sold-out Modest Mouse show, he figured there was a good chance he wouldn’t be making it. “Wrong answer,” I said in my best grandstanding good-buddy voice. This was not an option. This is fucking Modest Mouse at the fucking Bowery Ballroom, arguably one of the best clubs in New York City. An opportunity to see the band in such an intimate space doesn’t come around often. This was too important to miss. Plus, it was an incredibly difficult ticket to land (even my editor couldn’t snag one!). Modest Mouse were playing three venues that week, with two shows in Midtown at the massive Nokia Theater, then two at the slightly smaller Webster Hall in the East Village, and then, finally, two at the much, much smaller Bowery Ballroom. All six shows sold out in a matter of minutes. The only reason my ailing buddy scored two tickets was his tenacious patience and savvy understanding of Internet sales. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve softened on Modest Mouse in the past few years. I’ve been troubled by the prevalent belief that the band’s newfound commercial viability and radio-friendly status have dulled their chaotic spark, their rugged, angular sound and crass indifference to critics. After all, things like that happen when you’re accepted into a collective or society -- in this case, the new mainstream class of independent rockers. And so, in some ways, this show was a test. What happens when a band that’s made their name mining sharp melancholy suddenly has a reason to be happy? Does the fire cool down? Does the ceaseless burn give way to something friendly? Perhaps that’s a loaded question. Whatever the answer, the point is, I wasn’t without hope: I really was ready to see the legendary band eliminate all doubt about their sincerity with a nasty onslaught of bitter, brazen rock. Slay the knaves who speak ill of our fearless band leader Isaac Brock’s angst-ridden legacy. And the room was ready as well. The Bowery was teeming with energy. Hell, even the restrooms, which have fruit flies perched on the walls above the urinals, reminded me of something Mouse’s singer/songwriter extraordinaire Brock would turn into poetry. But, it wasn’t meant to be. I keep coming back to the “what didn’t work?” question. I don’t contest that even legendary bands have off nights. And remember, this was the fifth New York show in a row of six. That can be grueling for a band with so much to say. But, on the other hand, what do people who pay thirty-five bucks to see a show expect? What do they deserve? Perhaps that’s the more important question. There was no light show, no pyrotechnics or dancing machines -- just the music, which, let’s face it, is all we should expect. Of course, what we should expect and what we do expect isn't always the same thing. Eight technicians decorated the tiny, elaborate stage for nearly thirty minutes before the band arrived. The stage itself disappeared under two sets of drums, dual keyboards, an accordion, a trumpet, a mini cello, a banjo, and guitars -- both the lead singer and Special New Guitarist (to be mentioned later) each had techs replacing this last instrument after nearly every song. The male-dominated audience was salivating. But, onstage, the band was expressionless. And, as for audience interaction, singer Brock leveled only two comments: “Good evening,” when the night began, and “Thanks for coming.” If Brock wants to write about robots, cool. Sign me up. If he wants to act like a robot, okay, but why do it on stage? I spent the set thinking about what food I had in my refrigerator, the errands I needed to run the next day, and how alone everyone must have felt in such a crowded space, with nothing to relate to beyond an ostensibly great live band that was going through its set like it was a rehearsal. The new songs were too raw to judge -- in this respect it really was a warm-up for bigger gigs to come, when familiarity will engender greater enthusiasm. And so, it wasn’t the new material, or the “new” image that ruined the show, but rather the band itself. Their lackluster presentation was without inspiration or irony: it was mired in disconnection, the same dull ache engendered in the most affecting, but desperately unapproachable, part of the band’s music. It sucks to have to write that. At times, the band showed signs of life -- let’s not forget that they are very talented -- but the moments were few and far between and usually rested in the restrained emotion of Johnny Marr. Wait. Is that right? Johnny Marr… from The Smiths… onstage with Modest Mouse? It turns out the legendary guitarist was asked to record some tracks with the ebullient band. That turned into recording with them on their long-awaited follow-up to Good News for People Who Love Bad News, which subsequently led to Marr joining the band on this tour to test the new material. There have even been subsequent press claims by Brock that Marr is now an official member of the band. I loves the sound of that, but couldn’t believe the news until I saw it with my own eyes. It’s truly bizarre to see an ‘80s Brit-rock superstar sharing the stage with the kings of ‘90s American angst. Is this like Eddie Van Halen joining Oasis? Or Nikki Sixx with the Arctic Monkeys? Or Aerosmith’s Joe Perry attached to Blur (well, maybe not that extreme). I was there to see Modest Mouse, but more than half the people in attendance were fixated on Marr, simply awed by his presence. As odd a pairing as that may be, I liked the experimentation. Marr did nothing to hinder Modest Mouse’s sonic borders. In fact, he got me bracing for even more wild oscillation. I leave this article with a heavy hand, given that I’ve appreciated Modest Mouse’s music since day one. But on this particular night, the stars did not come into alignment. It brings to mind the lyrics from one of my favorite Mouse songs, “Baby Blue Sedan,” which, oddly, mirrors the sentiment of my evening, reminding us that the higher you push expectation, the further it has to fall: And it’s hard to be a human being

And it’s harder as anything else

And I’m lonesome when you’re around

And I’m never lonesome when I’m by myself Sorry Isaac; turns out I miss you when you’re around.

Check back tomorrow as PopMatters' Ryan S. Henriquez takes Bartels head-on in Modest Mouse -- Part 2, crying "A pox upon thee!" to the band's fleeting indie fanbase.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

Keep reading... Show less

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

Keep reading... Show less

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.