Isaac Brock

Catching Up On The Week (July 17 Edition)

Some #longreads for your brief moments indoors as you beat the heat…

Rust Is Just Right is heading to Project Pabst up in Portland this weekend, but we are providing some reading materials for those who are unable to make the trek themselves.

Speaking of Portland, Isaac Brock from Modest Mouse had an interesting interview with the media in Poland that was reprinted in Willamette Week where he lets loose on the uglier side of “Portlandia”.  After digesting that, be sure to read this extensive profile of Isaac, which documents the making of Strangers to Ourselves and proves that Buzzfeed can actually produce something of worth.  Then you can top it all off with a quick look at the video for Modest Mouse’s latest single, the bouncy “The Ground Walks, with Time in a Box.”

The biggest news of the day is the much-anticipated release of Currents, the new album from Tame Impala.  During our absence, record release dates have shifted in the United States and now they more closely follow the schedule used by the rest of the world, hence the Friday premiere.  To help prepare you for Currents, check out Pitchfork’s feature on the man behind Tame Impala, Kevin Parker.

We enjoyed immensely the return of Blur, giving high praise to their comeback album The Magic Whip.  Billboard has a fun interview with Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon talking about how the reunion came together and the influence of Hong Kong on the record.

Deadspin offers this op-ed which serves a strong defense for 90’s nostalgia favorite, Third Eye Blind.  We find nothing wrong at all with this stance.

Finally, this week saw the AV Club start a new column called “Version Tracker”, where they analyze a song and the various covers that have been performed over the years.  This is remarkably like our own feature, Covered.  We do not claim any bad intentions on their part, since it is unlikely that deliberately took our idea.  If however the AV Club would like to acknowledge our part in creating as the first comment on the piece state, “a damn brilliant concept for a feature,” we would appreciate that, if not some other sort of compensation.

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Review: Modest Mouse – Strangers to Ourselves

It may be tough for some fans to accept, but Modest Mouse in 2015 is not the same band that it was in 1996 when it released its debut album.  This is not a criticism at all, but a statement of fact–a band that began as a bare-bones, ramshackle trio playing dive bars has now evolved into an amorphous collective that headlines festivals.  Strangers to Ourselves is light years from the type of album that the band made in their K Records days, but underneath the polished sheen and layers of instrumentation the listener can still find the idiosyncratic character that undeniably defines this as a Modest Mouse record.  Not only are the oddball sensibility and humorous cynicism that are prevalent in their old releases still run rampant, but Isaac Brock and company continue to poke at the boundaries of what one expects musically from an indie rock record.

The album begins with the gorgeous title track, an ode to the ability to forget that is marked by a lovely string melody and dotted with countless instrumental ornamentations from the menagerie of supporting players, a moment of tranquility that recalls previous triumphs like “Gravity Rides Everything” and “The World at Large”.    Lead single “Lampshades on Fire” follows, and musically it sounds like modern-day Modest Mouse in a nutshell–there are the bent harmonics, the ba-ba-ba backing vocals, the splashes of color from quirky instruments, but performed in a compact and cohesive manner.  The lyrical theme covers classic Modest Mouse territory, with an overall narrative of escalating disasters that culminates in a plea of this-planet-is-fucked-so-let’s-move–“Pack up again head to the next place, where we’ll make the same mistakes.  Burn it up or just chop it down this one’s done, so where to now” share space with non sequiturs like “our ass looks great inside these jeans,” with both sentiments inspiring the same deep contemplation from the listener.

Songs like the menacing “Shit In Your Cut” and the backwater circus-evoking “Sugar Boats” already have fit seamlessly into the band’s setlist, and the bouncy “The Ground Walks, with Time in a Box”, which features a groovy bassline that brings to mind “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes”, is destined to be a future live favorite, especially with an outro that begs to be extended and embellished.  The delicate ballad “Coyotes” is another highlight that shows the band’s deft touch, especially as it swells into its final sing-along chorus with a lovely flourish of guitars.  The Jeremiah Green-penned “God is an Indian and You’re an Asshole” should also delight fans of the band’s more peculiar tendencies that works as a great palate-cleanser and sets up the album’s final trio of the songs that concludes the album with a strong flourish.

Though the band hits on several aspects of their sound that should delight multiple segments of their fanbase, Modest Mouse does not provide a mere rehash of their previous work and continues to experiment, with the results having varying degrees of success.  The bright, steel-drum-inflected “Ansel” and the skittering “Wicked Campaign” fit in comfortably with the rest of the album, whereas the spit-up and chewed-out “Pistol (A. Cunanan Miami FL. 1996)” threatens to stop Strangers dead in its tracks early on.  The latter grows on the listener with repeated listens once the initial shock wears down and is an example of the band’s bravery in confronting the listener’s expectations, but it is also the obvious candidate for most-skipped track on the album.

Strangers to Ourselves is overstuffed at fifteen tracks, but this has long been a trademark of Modest Mouse albums, including classics like The Lonesome Crowded West and The Moon & Antarctica; fans look back fondly on those albums as a whole, but even on those records there are some rather weak tracks, though over time they help contribute to the group’s “anything goes” feel.  Ever since “Float On” broke through into the mainstream, Modest Mouse has faced the charge from some fans that they “sold out”, though that is an unfair complaint–the band is as delightfully weird as ever and clearly follows their own muse, and their resultant popularity is not the product of a calculated shift to accommodate for more pedestrian tastes.  Though the group as currently constructed cannot write a loose and rambling classic like “Trailer Trash”, sacrificing some freedom for some semblance of structure, but they can still venture into some pretty wild places.

It may not reach the heights of their landmark albums, but there is a consistency to Strangers to Ourselves that makes it a marked improvement over We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, which could be a slog to get through at times.  It may not completely make up for the amount of time we’ve been waiting for a new Modest Mouse album, but we can at least take comfort in the fact that the next one should be coming very soon.

Feats of Strength: Modest Mouse (Music Edition)

There are many reasons that Modest Mouse became one of the preeminent success stories of the 90’s independent music scene, but the underlying common factor of each explanation is that each element of the band’s sound represented their personal and unique perspective.  The most memorable aspect of the band is perhaps Isaac Brock’s brilliant lyrics, which captured the hearts and minds of thousands by being both poignantly reflective and bitterly sardonic, followed closely by the innovative rhythm section of bassist Eric Judy and drummer Jeremiah Green.  However, one component that has not received proper credit is Isaac’s guitar-playing.   In this edition of Feats of Strength, we’re going to take a look at Isaac’s ability to turn what should be a gimmick into a significant ingredient in Modest Mouse’s trademark sound.

The specific trick we’re referring to is one that most average listeners can spot, even if they are unfamiliar with the particular mechanics of guitar-playing: the bending of a harmonic note.  It is a peculiar technique that Isaac has incorporated into his guitar-playing since the origins of Modest Mouse, as can be heard from the beginning of the opener “Dramamine” of their debut, This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About.*  Since then, the bent harmonic has appeared periodically over the years on multiple songs throughout the band’s catalog.  When the band finally released a new single last month after years of relative silence, the sonic detail from “Lampshades On Fire” that immediately grabbed my attention was the background presence of those trademark harmonic bends.  Once I heard those distinctive wavering chirps, I could confirm that I was in fact listening to a Modest Mouse song.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the technique, here is a quick explanation.  Bending the string is a key component in every guitarist’s arsenal, and the ability of the guitarist to manipulate the pitch in this manner is one of the things that distinguishes the guitar from other instruments (for example, a pianist is unable to mimic this technique and the vibrato employed by wind players does not have the same sweep or range of a guitar bend).  The bend is accomplished by the guitarist holding down the string for a particular note and then pushing the string up or down, in a manner perpendicular to the neck, while continuing to press down on the note.  It’s a simple maneuver that is essential to most guitar playing, most notably for leads.

Modest Mouse’s innovation is their ability to accomplish this same effect with a note that is normally unable to be bent.  On a guitar neck, it’s easy to see most of the possible notes–simply press down on any spot, and a note can be played.  But hidden on the neck is the capacity of the guitar to produce a harmonic overtone.  In conventional terms, by lightly pressing on the string in a certain manner, a guitarist can shoot the pitch up into a higher register than normal.  This may not sound like a big deal, but for instance, harmonics are used as a quick and easy way of making sure the guitar is in tune with itself (whether or not it is actually in tune with anything else is another story).  Sometimes harmonics come up in the course of a song; usually they’re thrown in as a bit of a curveball, since one normally expects pitches that are relatively close to what was just played.  The harmonic notes also have a distinct tone which differs from a normal note, a tone that is more undefined and ethereal, so guitarists often use them if they’re trying to create that kind of atmosphere.

Since in order to achieve the harmonic overtone you need to physically apply only a light touch, it would seem impossible to bend this note.  However, Isaac and the band thought outside the box and came up with a way around this problem, by looking to affect the pitch with the opposite hand.  Normally, the picking hand simply plucks the string, but there are other ways for it to manipulate the pitch.  Isaac used a whammy bar with his picking hand to bend the string from the bridge of the guitar (located near the base of the instrument) instead of the neck, which allows him to create the harmonic bend.  Whammy bars have often been used by guitarists to create a certain type of bent note, namely with large chords or to create a vibrato effect, but they had not been used to specifically bend a harmonic in the way that Isaac envisioned.  Isaac’s method has changed somewhat in recent years, as he’s using a guitar without a whammy bar attachment these days, and so he instead directly manipulates the bridge of the guitar to create the desired effect.

What is remarkable is not the mechanics of the technique, but the ability of the band to organically incorporate the trick into their sound.  Even though Modest Mouse has used the harmonic bend throughout their career, it has never sounded repetitive and they have never been close to driving it into the ground.  Isaac has been able to mine a lot of subtleties from this particular trick, using it to help convey a sense of chaos, as in the furious ending to “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine”, or to create a feeling of weightlessness, as in the main riff to “Interstate 8”,** or the ability to construct the sonic equivalent of pure melancholy, as in the opening to “Gravity Rides Everything”.

It’s an impressive achievement for a band to pioneer such an unusual technique but not be defined solely by that trick.  Even though the harmonic bend is not often a dominant part of their music, one would imagine that for most bands even using it a couple of times would get old after a while.  But the harmonic bend, while distinct on its own, is not far removed from the normal sounds and musical ideas of Modest Mouse.  As a result, it rarely draws attention to itself, and even knowing the mechanics behind the mystery doesn’t take away from its impact and effectiveness.

*I think I covered all the possible ways to convey the fact that this was at the very start of the band.

**Sidenote: Consider that Modest Mouse has a B-Sides and oddities album with Building Nothing Out Of Something that puts most band’s regular output to shame.  They are truly a remarkable band.