Thursday, April 6, 2017

One Last Pick Thru the Bins Vol. 21: Modest Mouse, On Having Great Range Within an Octave (or Two)

Sure, there are limits, but...big expanse, yeah?
I moved to the East Coast for a bit, and I lost track of music when I did. Traveling light (10-box maximum, sent by train, and to multiple locations) meant leaving supplies behind here and there. The groups I fell in with back East either weren’t devoting time to digging up new music (most), or they devoted all their time to loving some bands very, very much (e.g., Grateful Dead, Phish, and Widespread Panic) that I hated with equal, seriously?-I’m-leaving-the-room-now fervor.

Coming back west, circa 2002, also meant getting around at least a couple people who lived music as much as anyone who doesn’t play it regularly can. With them feeding both my music collection and my interest, my “musical libido” returned. And that is how I got my groove back.

Modest Mouse played a role in that, even if I can’t call it a big role. I thought she already had it when I met her, but my wife reminded me tonight that she asked me to buy Good News for People Who Love Bad News when it came out (2004). She found it through the radio, or something, and that brings me something about my wife: yes, she’s one of those people who will play an album – or, God forbid, just one song (see: “Cake by the Ocean”; nope! not kidding) - till every living person around her, and some of the pets (even the goldfish), beg her to stop. The negotiations that saved me from hating Good News for People Who Love Bad News raged loudly for a while – Stop and Pause buttons were pressed mid-song, threats made to “turn the goddamn car around right now, if that doesn’t go off” – but it went toward a good cause, because, goddamn it, I still love that album.

Seeing that Spotify gives the most famous songs from Good News pride of place in their popular queue (slots 1 and 3 of 5), it feels OK to call that album their Big One, the one that launched them to steady musical renown (and, ideally, financial security). “Float On” is still the one I hear most on accident (#1), maybe “World at Large” (#3), but a lot of the rest still feel like “hits” to me, if only by way of the fact that, like, a lot of people seem to know those same songs (e.g., “Ocean Breathes Salty,” “Bukowski,” “Bury Me With It,” and, personal favorite, “Black Cadillac”; just something about the combination of cadence and lyrics on that one; chorus doesn’t hurt either). Also, if the main way you consume an album is to sit down and listen to the whole damn thing (NO SKIPPING! These nice boys worked very, very hard on this!), the whole idea of “hits” kinda goes out the window.

Good News remained “peak Modest Mouse” for me – and not just for this project, but because it sounded better than any of the stuff I’d heard by them afterwards. I’d heard “Fire It Up” and (I think; could be misremembering) “Steam Engenius” on the radio, both off We Were Already Dead Before the Ship Even Sank (2007), and, they played fine, even if like more of the same. That one landed in the collection, but things stalled there in every sense of the word – the CD sat on the shelf mostly collecting dust, and the folder on the hard drive would later suffer exactly the same fate. Exactly the same. The general impression was, it was good, just not as good as the best songs off Good News...

When Strangers to Ourselves came out in 2015, the radio (again, by way of my wife) once more plopped Modest Mouse in front of me, mostly with “Lampshades on Fire,” a song that, at first blush, listened like the song equivalent of an athlete with a once-big name fighting for a final payout.

With that, the original frame for this volume became, “what happened to Modest Mouse on either side of its mid-career peak”? As often happens – and, in fact, that’s why I’m devoting some years to this madness – the more I listened to Modest Mouse, the more I…really fucking liked Modest Mouse. And, with that, the frame shifted to something a little more elevated – specifically, how the hell does Modest Mouse keep putting out music that sounds so consistent across so many albums, and without boring even a listener who is seriously cramming (me)?

Over the past four days, I listened to every Modest Mouse album except Baron Von Bullshit Rides Again, Sad Sappy Sucker, Building Something Out of Nothing, and This Is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About at least twice (and most of which album names should tell you something about their tone/idiom); and I listened to Building Something and This is a Long Drive one time each. (In other words, won’t lie; went broad and shallow instead of deep and thorough with this one.) A broad concept grew out of this whole thing. First, Modest Mouse has a signature sound and idiom, like any band that leaves a mark of any kind would. To put that another way, they added to music in some way that people remember, if only for now. (And that’s OK.)

It’s here where Modest Mouse gets fun. Of their Top 5 songs on Spotify’s list, all five readily recall their signature sound and style. Those songs (sorry to repeat, but relevant): “Float On,” “Dashboard,” “The World at Large,” “Lampshades on Fire,” and “Missed the Boat” – of which, if this were a rhyme scheme, the pattern would be something like “aabab.” In other words, there is no “c” in that mix, and certainly not a “d.”

That’s where I landed on Modest Mouse’s durability as artists. They might sound similar to what they used to, but they cleaned up quite a bit between, say, The Lonesome Crowded West than they do on Strangers to Ourselves; hell, Good News might rhyme with The Lonesome Crowded West, but it sure as hell doesn’t repeat it – except on one level. While there are “tres Modest Mouse” songs in every phase of their career, even when their line-up changed more than a little, every album contains enough changes in tempo, instrumentation and, arguably, execution that every album plays quite nicely as an individual musical work. Basically, every Modest Mouse album I listened to this week, bar none, had at least a “c,” maybe even a “d.”

Rather than try to wrestle nine albums into a coherent case, I decided to illustrate the point with just one album – The Lonesome Crowded West, which, thanks to its sound and arrangement, crawled over the top of Good News just this week to stand tall as my favorite Modest Mouse album. And, as it turns out, I need just six tracks to make the point – Tracks 7 - 12. The selection starts off with “Cowboy Dan,” a track that features “Modest Mouse guitar,” if less choppy and distorted than it’d later be, and smart, lightly contemptuous lyrics that say, with a gentle nod, “Modest Mouse,” but all still with a restrained, and consciously-varied tempo; it’s not that Modest Mouse doesn’t play in that speed much, but it changes the mood every time it happens. Next comes “Trailer Trash,” a song that prefigures a thinner, lighter version of the sound they’d bring to the big stage with Good News. “Out of Gas”….well, that’s too close to “Trailer Trash.” That familiar...hold on…

The pattern breaks on “Long Distance Drunk,” with that weird, almost jug-band sound that pulses through the song; the drums never quite kick in, and the rhythm guitar sounds like it’s playing behind the vocals, and there’s that echoed female vocal hanging over some of the verses. All in all, the only clear thing that ties that song to the tracks before it is Isaac Brock’s vocals; that’s your “c” song. And then “Shit Luck” happens, introduced by the shouted phrase, “This plane is definitely crashing,” and followed by a half-off-tuned surf guitar loop – that, intermittently, has a distorted twang playing over it; it’s hard for a song by the same artist to sound so different, but Modest Mouse plays comfortably in both modes; and there’s your “d” song. “Truckers Atlas,” a weird half-epic that (and this without having time to soak in the lyrics) treats a cross-country trip in the same spirit as 16th-century Voyages Into the Unknown (also, won’t lie; touches the hem of “jam band”), but, if I’m being honest, I place that between a “b” and “c” song, but I’m not even sure there. And even that one switches the tempo up all over. So even with that one-song hiccup, that’s a lot of shifts in tempo, mode, even mood. “Long Distance Drunk” to “Shit Luck,” in particular, keeps a listener on his/her toes.

One last note on the The Lonely Crowded West: a couple songs made me think so fiercely of either Treepeople or Built to Spill that I couldn’t let it go all week – listen late (about 5:20) in “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine” or all of “Heart Cooks Brain.” And, while I’m on it, does anyone else hear Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps” in Modest Mouse’s “Wicked Campaign.” Even a little? (UPDATE: And by way of balance, two other songs on this album bear noting: "Lounge (Closing Time)," my favorite on the whole thing (love that bending bass, the way it sets a bed for the guitar and vocals); and, even if you don't like "Jesus Christ Was an Only Child," it holds the central theory of this post way the hell up.)

I complained a lot about monotony in the volumes on Pegboy and Mogwai; a band can have a great sound (Pegboy), or even a variety of sounds (Mogwai), but, odds are, a listener (or this listener) will still get bored after even 20+ minutes of the same basic tune, mood, tempo, etc. Modest Mouse never fell into that trap, even across nine albums. Or, more accurately, they produced nine albums that, album against album, all rely on something like the same arrangements – e.g. a variety of up-tempo, heavier songs, and with more distortion, against slower, quieter songs, where they ease up on the guitar effects, and scale back the vocals – but that doesn’t matter so much, or even at all, when you put out one album in semi-bunched gaps (e.g., This Is a Long Drive and Lonesome Crowded came out a year apart, but the next two, The Moon & Antarctica (also, real good) and Building Something Out of Nothing came out three years later, and also a year apart; something close to this pattern repeats, if only till 2004; still, decent run).

Add to that the (rough) fact that Modest Mouse evolves reasonably over time. I never warmed to some songs on Strangers to Ourselves – see “The Ground Walks, With Time in a Box” and “Coyotes,” because they sound like Modest Mouse with a little too much spit-shine (and in the wrong way; for instance, this David Byrne song manages to sound polished and like progress in his career at the same time). For all that, I can't hate a band that puts “Pistol” and “Sugar Boats” on the same album, because, within the Modest Mouse context, those are boldly different songs, if still reasonably consistent with their overall approach to music…

…and that’s what I like about them. Modest Mouse is, and seems to have the confidence to be, Modest Mouse. They carved out a decently large musical space from the get-go, and it’s served them…really goddamn well down the years. If I learned nothing else this past week, I learned that I underrated We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank. That’s pretty good, too.

I could keep going all day. I could dredge up song after song that I like, and root into why I like it. Here’s to hoping that all of the above captured enough of it to get someone digging through their stuff. Till next week…let’s see who’s next…oh, snap. MGMT. Fuck. Another learning curve…

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