Modest Mouse

     This Is a Long Drive for Someone With Nothing to Think About (Up, 1996)
    Interstate 8 (Up, 1996)
     The Lonesome, Crowded West (Up, 1997)
     Building Nothing out of Something (Up, 2000)
     The Moon & Antarctica (Epic, 2000)
    Sad Sappy Sucker (K, 2001)
     Good News for People Who Like Bad News (Epic, 2004)
    Baron von Bullshit Rides Again (Epic, 2004)
     We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank (Epic, 2007)
     No One's First, And You're Next (Epic, 2009)

From the first meandering arpeggio of its 1996 debut album, This Is a Long Drive for Someone With Nothing to Think About, Modest Mouse conjured a sound that was unmistakably its own. Isaac Brock's double-tracked guitars and Eric Judy's loose-lined bass forged seemingly accidental harmonies from their independent chatter until Jeremiah Green's drums insistently pounded these goings-on into a constancy that resembles riffs. Released a few short months after the debut, the Interstate 8 EP sharpens Brock's impertinent squawk and cranky narratives ("I'm going nowhere but I'm guaranteed to be late," he confesses on the title track).

On The Lonesome, Crowded West, Brock is even more in his own world; an outsider with "shit luck" who is "such a jerk" that he "can't do anything." What Modest Mouse can, and does, do throughout the album is channel Brock's frustrations into gloriously odd, gloriously rambunctious rock & roll ("Trailer Trash" is probably the group's definitive song). The only thing that could've improved West would have been if the wired, dejected "Doin' the Cockroach" really was the band's emo-dance-craze answer to the Macarena.

On Modest Mouse's major-label debut, The Moon & Antarctica (cold and desolate, get it?), Brock drops cosmic burnout science, such as "The universe is shaped exactly like the earth/If you go straight long enough you'll end up where you were," like that's enough reason to postpone the voyage and fire up the bong, while the band gestures occasionally toward prog-leaning atmospherics. The album nudged Modest Mouse into the vanguard of American indie rock, adding just enough sheen to prick up the ears of new fans without sacrificing the grit of the early music.

The follow-up, Good News for People Who Like Bad News, was an improbable chart success that showed Modest Mouse could polish their delivery without changing their outlook one bit. The textures are brighter and the instrumentation more diverse on an impressive series of outcast anthems, from the unironically bouncy single "Float On," to the Tom Waits-y rural-blues squall of "This Devil's Work Day," to typically verbose and cutting rants like "Black Cadillacs" and "Bury Me With It." It's not the Modest Mouse older fans had come to love, but it proved that Brock was still a talented sad sack set against a current of booze and bad thoughts.

Bemused but in no way changed by the sudden mainstream attention, Brock drafted former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr into Modest Mouse for We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, an album as weird as any other in the band's catalog. Marr's signature chiming fretwork is apparent throughout, but somehow he doesn't stick out on idiosyncratic cuts like the agitated stomper "Fly Trapped in a Jar," the swampy "Steaming Genius" and the nearly nine-minute jam "Spitting Venom." The Shins' James Mercer adds some pop appeal with guest vocals on three songs, the best of which is the tight rocker "Florida." No One's First, And You're Next is an easily likeable EP that's nearly as varied as We Were Dead, with "Satellite Skin" a coulda-been hit and the horn-addled "Perpetual Motion Machine" imagining the band as New Orleans buskers.

A pack rat till the end, Brock has released several collections of Modest Mouse rarities and B sides: The snippets on Sucker are abbreviated and petulant; the ruminations on Building Nothing are sprawling and uncertain; and both are of a piece—as if the most perverse act these devout pessimists could envision in the face of the void was to make even their trash consistent in quality.

Modest Mouse has a well-deserved reputation as a must-see live band; one never knows when Brock will crawl on the floor or start playing guitar with his teeth. That danger doesn't exactly translate on the 2004 concert compilation Baron Von Bullshit Rides Again, which is sloppy and entertaining but certainly not an essential part of the discography.

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).

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