Taken on its own merits, Sad Sappy Sucker is pretty good, but the out-and-out strangeness of it all and the fact that it doesn't hold together as a real album may throw off the uninitiated.
Okay, so this is the new Modest Mouse album. Except it's not, really -- it's actually their debut album, recorded with Calvin Johnson way back in '94 at Dub Narcotic, which they scrapped before proceeding to record and release their real "debut" album, The Lonesome Crowded West, on Up Records. Following so far? But wait, some of the songs are from the "Birds vs. Worms" 7", from back in 1998, or the K Records single "Blue Cadet-3, Do You Connect?" Oh, and the last nine songs on the CD aren't even from any of those releases (or almost-releases, in the first case), but are from a Dial-A-Song "service" run by bandleader/demented genius Isaac Brock, where folks could call his answering machine and get a brand new song every day, fresh from the indubitably weird mind and guitar of Mr. Brock himself. On top of that, one of the songs isn't even him, but is actually one of the guys from the Murder City Devils, who left his own song on Brock's answering machine (the only caller to ever leave a message, apparently). Got it now?
Basically, there's a lot to process here, so the listener can be forgiven if he or she doesn't immediately grasp what's going on; the breadth of material is both a curse and a blessing. On the one hand, it's great to be given such a glimpse into the past, the chance to look back and compare the Modest Mouse that was to the Modest Mouse that is today. On the other hand, though, this reviewer happens to think that The Lonesome Crowded West was a fucking brilliant record, and the thought of replacing it (so to speak), with Sad Sappy Sucker raises my hackles on principle. As a whole CD, well, the raucous glory of West this isn't, nor could it ever be.
And hey, that's okay. Going back to the "blessing" bit, above, Sucker does indeed provide a look backwards at the formative years of the band, as well as hints of what's to come. One interesting aspect of that perspective is that it really demonstrates just how much of a style of their own Brock and co. have developed over the years -- from the grittiest, dirtiest, most half-assed four-tracks on here to the relatively smooth, professional production of the Dub Narcotic tracks, it's all recognizably Modest Mouse. That stylistic integrity is in itself a feat, and it makes even the not-so-good songs (and there are a few) fascinating to hear. Listening to this CD after hearing the music that's followed is what I'd imagine it would have been like to hear Guided by Voices' seminal Bee Thousand after they'd already done the major-label thing (a comparison made even more apt by the fact that Modest Mouse's most recent offering is on Epic...).
Not everything flows as smoothly as later releases do, especially on tracks like "Classy Plastic Lumber," which sounds more than a bit unrehearsed and loose. That sloppiness, though, is balanced by an exuberance that more than makes up for any shortcomings, making the blemishes more endearing than painful (see "It Always Rains on a Picnic" for an example). On the whole, the collection (I can't bring myself to call it an "album") is more sleepy and subdued than West, or even their "other" collection of B-sides and rejects, Building Nothing Out of Something; there aren't really any crazed rave-ups on here, the only shrieking, quasi-spastic track being the rocking "Dukes Up", which itself starts out sounding like drone-rock a la Ganger or Mogwai.
The "pro" songs are pretty uniformly good, including the excellent "Worms vs. Birds", a song I'd heard on the original 7" and hadn't liked much; it makes more sense here, I think, rather than wedged in-between the band's later CDs (which is the order in which I heard it). "Four Fingered Fishermen" follows up nicely, pointing the direction that a lot of the band's songs will later take, while "Wagon Ride Return" turns down and drifts by almost unnoticed, forcing the listener to go back and give it a closer listen. There's a bit of a resemblance to Sebadoh on "From Point A to Point B (Infinity)", especially once things slow down and the accordion comes in, and "Mice Eat Cheese" has a Silver Scooter sound to it, except that I can't imagine the guys from Silver Scooter ever singing about mice and sounding as sincere as Brock does.
"Every Penny Fed Car" is just about a perfect example of the "classic" Modest Mouse song, pairing alternately droning and rocking-out guitars with one whopping line of lyrics and creating a kind of indie-rock mantra -- a description that can be applied to most of the band's work, really. A lot of the music has this mantric quality to it, both musically and lyrically, where a simple-yet-obtuse melodic line repeats ad infinitum, and where Brock sing-shouts repeated almost-poetry, occasionally varying things slightly but often coming back to the same refrain. This formula pares the idea of verse-chorus-verse down to just a single verse in some cases, but it works surprisingly well.
Finally, while it's difficult to tell the 7" and single songs here from the Dub Narcotic sessions, it's not hard to guess which songs are the Dial-A-Song recordings, simply by virtue of their ultra-lo-fi quality (God only knows what these songs must've sounded like over the phone, to boot). Fans of crisp, clean production, look elsewhere -- the guitar on "BMX Crash" is so distorted and fucked-up that I would've sworn it was a kazoo, if that tells you anything. Going back to the GbV analogy used above, "Sucker Bet" and "5-4-3-2-1 lisp-Off" sound like throwaways from Robert Pollard's home studio (well, if he threw anything away, that is), and nearly every track has a strange, addictive quality, despite their brevity and, uh, weirdness.
Taken on its own merits, Sad Sappy Sucker is pretty good, but the out-and-out strangeness of it all and the fact that it doesn't hold together as a real album may throw off the uninitiated (and who can blame them?). Like I said, Lonesome Crowded West this isn't; I'd start with that one first, folks. For those Modest Mouse completists out there, however, this record is also the closest anybody will probably ever get to actually peeking inside Isaac Brock's head, and for that, I'd say it's a must-have. I mean, come on -- how can anybody who can construct a song about Australopithecus be anything other than a freakin' genius, even if the song disintegrates into tape hiss halfway through?