|Modest Mouse - We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank|
|Music Disc Reviews Audio CD|
|Written by Matt Fink|
|Friday, 01 June 2007|
release year: 2007
reviewed by: Matt Fink
A product of the old indie rock mindset, where Top 40 success is a symptom of a lack of creative integrity and pop music is a term associated with musicians who only want to appeal to the largest number of listeners, Isaac Brock isn’t comfortable with Modest Mouse’s status as chart-topping rock band. In fact, when I interviewed him last December, he practically refused to discuss any aspects of his band’s success, contending that he’d never really considered how unlikely it was to hear his music blaring out of car stereos across the country. When I asked him if he was becoming more and more of a pop craftsman, he bristled. “Are you?” he shot back nonsensically, leaving me to say that since I don’t write songs, the question doesn’t apply to me. “Well, that’s my answer, too, then,” he said defensively. It was obvious the question hit a nerve.
Just what that says about We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank is far less clear, as it undoubtedly continues Brock’s progression as a pop songwriter with his most immediately accessible set of songs. If he was feeling queasy about the success of 2004’s Good News for People Who Like Bad News, he has a funny way of showing it, as the 14 tracks of this follow-up are more pointed, more polished and more immediate than anything in the band’s rough-around-the-edges catalogue. And, yet, a contrarian like Brock can’t shake off the entanglements of his notorious outsider perspective, his strangled vocal yelp or his fixation on all things bleak. The same thing that makes him snap at interviewers continues to fuel his writing and playing. If Modest Mouse is making pop music, it’s obviously on their terms.
For evidence of Brock’s increasing capacity for massively infectious hooks, look no further than the first single “Dashboard,” a four-minute blast of slashing guitar leads, four-on-the-floor beats, swooning synths, pulsing horns and Brock’s barking lead vocal and layered backing tracks. Even more catchy than the massively unshakable “Float On” -- the breakthrough single that launched them onto a thousand modern rock play lists and into a few million stereos -- it’s a rare pop moment, one that equals its immediate likeability with lyrics that cleverly contrast a comically doomed situation with the narrator’s hectoring optimism. “It would have been, could have been, worse than you would ever know,” he sings, almost as a threat. “The dashboard melted but we still had the radio.” Exactly what that metaphor is meant to represent is unclear but ultimately unimportant. The essence of the song comes through so immediately and perfectly that it’s impossible to do anything but think about how you’re going to get the hook out of your head.
Of course, if Brock was feeling at all insecure about his increasing proclivity toward pop music, he shouldn’t have chosen to bring legendary Smiths’ guitarist Johnny Marr into the band as a collaborator and lead guitarist. Interesting, though his alternately fluttering and sparkling guitar lines generally balance Brock’s wickedly ornery guitar tones, Marr doesn’t seem to play a disproportionately large role in the proceedings, and Brock is still unmistakably the album’s central character. And for the most part, that’s why his songs are so interesting, as he covers nearly every inch of the album in his oversized personality and caustically clever wordplay. While Modest Mouse inarguably functions as a band in the truest sense, with most of the arrangements posited from the rock-solid rhythm section of bassist Eric Judy and drummer Jeremiah Green, it’s still Brock’s self-convinced shit-talker persona that provides the heart of the songs.
While he doesn’t do much to scale back his eccentricities, there’s little denying that Brock is writing songs with an increasing sense of focus and order. Riff-rockers like “We’ve Got Everything” and “Education” would sound as good on a sweaty dance floor as they would in a redneck bar, because despite Brock’s generally lowly view of mankind, the guitar hooks slash with such precision over the bobbing bass and limber drumbeats that they remain first-rate pop tunes. Of course, being a Modest Mouse release, the album isn’t without its share of riotously unhinged moments, but even those are surprisingly accessible. One of the few moments that retain the band’s claustrophobic backwoods stomp, opener “March to the Sea” lurches along behind a tense backdrop of tangled fiddles, wheezy accordions and Brock’s madman laugh. Even here, though, the unkempt sprawl adds up to an undeniably hypnotic effect, and it’s a track that’s just a gas to listen to, growing more cathartic and fascinating with each frantic turn.
But even though Brock is now writing songs that an undeniably large cross section of the population could theoretically enjoy, his ambitions as a craftsman ensure that the album never becomes empty ear candy. As before, he remains forever indebted to Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, as evidenced by his squawking and twitchy delivery leading into the soaring choruses and twinkling asides of “Florida,” a track whose time changes and varying tones suggest that it may have originated as three different tracks. But even here, on one of the album’s most melodic numbers, Brock is insistent on keeping even the album’s most accessible moments from being predictable, turning the last minute of the track into a snarling and stomping doom rock finale. Even more adventurous is the multi-part “Spitting Venom,” a track that uses its eight-and-a-half-minute running time to build from a humbly strummed folk tune to a brassy riff-rocker and a pensively mewing sing-along. As always, Brock’s voice regularly creaks and croaks and falls out of tune and off-meter, and as approachable as most of the album is, it’s obvious that they’ve taken care to retain their most distinctive quirks.
That said, the album isn’t without a few misfires, from the overly wistful sun-dappled guitar tones and serenely jostled electronic beats of “Missed the Boat” to the listless modern rock radio sheen and unimaginatively snaking guitar riffs of “People as Places as People.” Though he rarely shows his tender side to any great extent, the uncomfortably maudlin “Little Motel” presents Brock as a soft rock balladeer, talking to his lover about his hopes for their future and his desire for creating a better life for the both of them. “I don’t think there was an insult that was missed/I can see it in your eyes like I can taste your lips/and I’m very sorry” he coos uncharacteristically, over a blandly serene electric guitar and plopping percussion, the self-mocking chest-thumper turned disarmingly conciliatory. Simply put, hopefulness just doesn’t suit him.
In the end, whether Brock is internally conflicted about the newfound status of his band or simply unwilling to admit that he actually can write songs that everyone from high school jocks to art school hipsters can crank to 11, it’s apparent that his personal feelings haven’t influenced his work one iota. He continues to write songs that are driven only by the power of his personality and the imagination of a band that with every release only grows tighter and more capable of doing exactly what they want. What they’ve created is the rarest of all modern rock albums, one that sounds good from first listen, reveals its considerable thematic and sonic depth over time, and emerges as a remarkably cohesive and endlessly engaging statement. If Brock doesn’t like the attention, he clearly shouldn’t have made this album.
Produced by Dennis Herring (Counting Crows, Jars of Clay), the album is by far their cleanest and most focused release. The textures by and large are clean and bold, with the vocals loud and often multi-tracked, and the guitar lines clear and bristling. Where the band often took side roads into murky acoustic textures or deeply atmospheric grooves, this is an album that from start to finish sounds like it could fit on the radio. In short, it’s the rare album that can both bludgeon like a hammer for the head-banger and reward close listens for the audiophile.