Modest Mouse

Rust Is Just Right’s Best Albums of 2015

Today is April 18, and while the rest of the nation celebrates Tax Day (an extra three days later this year), we here at Rust Is Just Right choose this occasion to release our Best Albums of the Year list.  We follow this unusual schedule for a few reasons: 1) It allows some of the albums that are released at the end of the calendar year to get some recognition, since they usually get swallowed up in the attention of the flurry of year-end lists; 2) We get the chance to analyze other lists to pick up on albums that somehow escaped our attention during the course of the year; and 3) It provides a handy consumer guide for people to focus where to spend their tax refund.

The process that is used to determine this list is highly rigorous and hardly scientific.  However, we are still in the process of attempting to patent and trademark The Process, which if you may recall, is simply tallying up the play counts on iTunes for each album.  It has served us well in years past, and a quick glance at our list this year proves that it has worked once again.

Note: Though the list is a Top 10, there are more albums than slots, because we don’t like breaking ties for the same play count.  If you’re really intent on focusing on only 10, I guess take the 10 highest performing albums from the list, but you really shouldn’t limit yourself like that if you can help it.  Also, we have reviews for nearly all of these albums, so for those of you seeking a more detailed analysis all you need to do is click the appropriate tag above.

10. Deaf Wish – Pain; Disasterpeace – It Follows (Score); EL VY – Return to the Moon; HEALTH – Death Magic; Speedy Ortiz – Foil Deer; Tobias Jesso Jr. – Goon (7 plays)

A very interesting mix at the bottom of the list, including our token electronic choice as well as our first pick of a film score in this site’s history.  Deaf Wish broke through with one of the best noise-rock albums of the year, showing a surprising amount of depth for such a narrow niche, and EL VY proved that side-projects don’t have to be boring.  The debut album from Tobias Jesso Jr. is the star of this particular slot, as Goon shows that the world may have found a true heir to the rich musical legacy of Harry Nilsson.

9. Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment – Surf; Earl Sweatshirt – I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside; Titus Andronicus – The Most Lamentable Tragedy; Vaadat Charigim – Sinking as a Stone; White Reaper – White Reaper Does It Again; Wilco – Star Wars (8 plays)

Another eclectic group at the number nine slot–there’s the ambitious rock opera from Titus Andronicus sharing space with the keep-it-simple garage rock of White Reaper, the joyous jazz-inflected Surf project featuring the exuberant Chance the Rapper sliding up next to the brooding and intense personal meditations of Earl Sweatshirt, and the veteran purveyors of Americana in Wilco sitting comfortably by the Israeli shoegaze group Vaadat Charigim.

8. Blur – The Magic Whip; BADBADNOTGOOD & Ghostface Killah – Sour Soul; Ghostface Killah – Twelve Reasons to Die II; Joanna Gruesome – Peanut Butter; Low – Ones and Sixes; Waxahatchee – Ivy Tripp (9 plays)

Most people seem to have forgotten that not only did Blur come back this year, but they did so with a brilliant album that recalls their peak during the mid-90’s BritPop era, with the group showing that they learned a few things during their downtime.  Similarly, Low once again suffers through the Spoon Curse of being consistently great, with little love being shown for their latest excellent release.  Waxahatchee broadened her sound to great results this year, while Joanna Gruesome solidified their style.  But it is Ghostface who deserves special recognition this year for releasing two separate fantastic records this year.

7. Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color; Foals – What Went Down; Ought – Sun Coming Down; Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love; Viet Cong – Viet Cong (10 plays)

We are glad to welcome back Sleater-Kinney into our lives, as No Cities to Love fits in comfortably with the rest of the other great punk records in their back catalog.  Viet Cong’s debut album and Ought’s second record were challenging post-punk works, but there were enough intriguing elements to be found in both to inspire continued listening.  Alabama Shakes improved immensely from their debut album, showing off a broader range than what had been expected from their previous blues-rock groove.  However, we once again wait for Foals to break through into the mainstream, even though they did their part by releasing this great arena-ready album.

6. Beach Slang – Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us; Modest Mouse – Strangers to Ourselves; Protomartyr – The Agent Intellect (11 plays) 

A lot of people may be surprised by the high ranking of the new Modest Mouse album, but we feel that there was enough on this sprawling effort to reward repeated listens.  While it may not appear as seamless as classics like The Lonesome Crowded West and The Moon & Antarctica, there are several tracks that different eras of fans can enjoy–even the notorious “Pistol” gets better each time you hear it.  Meanwhile, Protomartyr’s brooding post-punk serves as a great contrast to Beach Slang’s exuberant beer-soaked punk.

5. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly (12 plays) 

A worthy recipient of many accolades this past year, Kendrick Lamar’s magnum opus brilliantly pushes the boundaries of what many thought hip-hop could do.  It is often a difficult and uncompromising listen, but there are still many joys to be found throughout the album.

4. Bully – Feels Like; Royal Headache – High (13 plays) 

Both of these records are thrilling half-hours-of-power, and frankly I am wondering why they did not receive more publicity.  There were few albums as fun as this duo.

3. Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress; Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell (14 plays) 

Amazingly enough, Godspeed You! Black Emperor seem to be improving with each new release, with Asunder being possibly their most accessible work yet.  There were few moments as powerful as the climax of “Peasantry or ‘Light! Inside of Light!” or the bombastic ending of “Piss Crowns are Trebled”.  At the other end of the spectrum, Sufjan Stevens may have finally made us converts with the quietly devastating and deeply personal Carrie & Lowell.

2. Deafheaven – New Bermuda (16 plays)  

Deafheaven successfully met the challenge of following up their genre-bending breakthrough album Sunbather, returning with the powerful, if more conventional, New Bermuda.  However, the amazing thing about this album is that not only does it stand on its own, it somehow enhances their previous work; each listen of New Bermuda inspires an additional listen of Sunbather, and somehow that album gets better every time we hear it.  Still, New Bermuda stands on its own as a brilliant album, with each of its five tracks jockeying for position as best song on the record.

1. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear (17 plays) 

We had a feeling at the beginning of last year that Father John Misty would place high in our list, but even we were surprised that our favorite shaman ended up in the top slot.  I Love You, Honeybear is a gorgeously lush record, filled with swelling strings and ebullient horns, but there is a dark undercurrent lurking below much of the album.  The record works on both a superficial level and with a more critical approach, which helps explain its surprising ranking.  But in the end, it is just a damn good record, and we cannot wait to see one of modern rock’s great showman return to Oregon later this year.

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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.

Over the Weekend (May 4 Edition)

News, new music, and videos as you recover from the decadence and depravity of this past weekend

Alabama Shakes has had a busy week: not only did they receive a rave review from this publication, but they learned that their album Sound & Color debuted at number 1, the first time they have earned such an honor.  To top it off, the band released the superb music video for the album’s title track, a subtle, heartrending tale that takes place in the unlikely setting of a spaceship.

It was a busy week for late night performances, with Modest Mouse stopping by Jimmy Kimmel Live, My Morning Jacket stopping by The Tonight Show, and Blur making their first US TV appearance in over a decade.  Blur has been hitting the rounds on both sides of the Atlantic, having recently stopped by Later…with Jools Holland to perform selections from The Magic Whip and also talk to the man himself.  Though the shows were broadcast previously in the UK, it was only recently shown here in the States on Palladia, so please forgive our tardiness.

We have been keeping you informed about the updates from Tame Impala about their new album, and now we can share that Currents has an apparently official release date of July 18th.  In addition, the band has released another track, the quick and punchy “Disciples”.

This afternoon, The Chemical Brothers released a music video featuring Q-Tip and directed by Michel Gondry, for a track called “Go”.  Yes, it still is 2015 and not 1998, for the record; the track appears on their upcoming album Born in the Echoes, which will be released July 7.

Finally, the music world suffered terrible losses this week, with the passing of Jack Ely, lead singer of The Kingsmen, and the legendary Ben E. King.  Portland’s connection to the recording of “Louie, Louie” makes Ely’s passing difficult to hear, and of course everyone is well aware of King’s contributions for The Drifters (“This Magic Moment”, “Save the Last Dance for Me”), as well as his immortal hit, “Stand By Me”.  They will be missed.

[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hwZNL7QVJjE=

Over the Weekend (Mar. 30 Edition)

News, videos, and other fun stuff for your possible recovery from Spring Break…

Built To Spill is gearing up for the release of their long-awaited eighth album, Untethered Moon, and they recently posted the video for its first single, “Living Zoo”.  Be sure to read the Noisey interview with Doug Martsch that accompanies it for an insight into what the band has been up to in the past few years and how the current lineup was formed.

Mini Mansions is a new project featuring Michael Shuman, the current bassist from Queens of the Stone Age, and they just released a new video featuring Alex Turner from the Arctic Monkeys.  Pitchfork has the video and some more background on the shoot, though as the link indicates, it is probably NSFW due to reasons of nudity.  As for the music, the song has the same Gothic vibe that can be found in QOTSA’s groovier work, and is pretty catchy as well.

Death Grips is releasing jenny death, the second half of The Powers That B tomorrow, and it is certainly a different animal from the first half that was shared last year.  Check out the GoPro-type video for the bone-rattling “I Break Mirrors With My Face in the United States”, featuring footage from Zach’s drumstick and MC Ride’s mic.

…And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead shared the video for “Lie Without A Liar” from their recent album IX, depicting a fantastical suburban child warrior.  Or something.

Ad-Rock, subject of a recent GQ profile that we linked to on Friday, stopped by The Tonight Show to discuss his recent movie role as well as his poor appearance.

Elsewhere on the late night circuit, Modest Mouse became the first band to perform on the newest incarnation of The Late Late Show, now hosted by James Corden, where they performed “Be Brave” from Strangers to Ourselves.

Stereogum has a helpful guide to getting all your “beach” bands straight, which is probably worthy of consultation as the weather gets nicer.  I wonder if they had similar guides when “Deer” and “Wolf” bands were popular.

And finally, enjoy the contributions of this musical dog to some well-known rock songs.  It’s the perfect thing to help kickstart your week.

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.

Over the Weekend (Mar. 23 Edition)

Some news, new music, and new videos as you get over your post-SXSW hangover…

Modest Mouse stopped by CBS News on Saturday morning to perform songs from their latest album Strangers to Ourselves, with frontman Isaac Brock also sitting down for a quick interview to go over what happened in the time since the release of We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank.  Though many sites have posted videos of a couple of the songs they performed, the band’s Facebook post has links to all three performance videos and the interview.  The band also released the official video for the single “Lampshades on Fire”, featuring a lot of jump-cuts and one crazy party.

Though “Lampshades” was the first single released from the album, it strangely is the second video, as the video for the ballad “Coyotes” was previously released.

Blur shared another track from their upcoming Magic Whip, and “Lonesome Street” should please fans with fond memories of the band’s Parklife era.  Of course, Blur’s albums are fairly diverse affairs, and the singles released by the band so far proves that Magic Whip will be no different in this regard.

Built To Spill has released another song from Untethered Moon, the sweet and poppy “Never Be The Same”; it is available instantly along with the previously released jam “Living Zoo” when you pre-order the album now, which is available on vinyl for Record Store Day this year and on disc on April 21st.

Action Bronson is releasing his major-label debut this week, and right now Mr. Wonderful is available for streaming, if that is your preferred method of consumption.  This brief interview Bronson did with GQ should convince you to check it out.

Speaking of streams, a couple of major albums that will be released next week can now be streamed, with Death Cab for Cutie’s Kintsugi available on NPR and Sufjan Stevens’s Carrie & Lowell available at multiple sites.

Finally, enjoy this video from last week’s South by Southwest of comedian Hannibal Buress sitting behind the kit for Speedy Ortiz in a terrible, terrible performance of “MKVI”.

Catching Up On The Week (Mar. 20 Edition)

Some #longreads as you enjoy the first day of spring…

Most of the music world spent this week dissecting and analyzing Kendrick Lamar’s new album To Pimp A Butterfly, a record that will singlehandedly keep the thinkpiece industry afloat for the next several months.*  We are going to be judicious in our selection of Kendrick-related material to link to in the near-future, but we imagine that this piece from Stereogum highlighting the important contributors to the record should be worth your while.  We cannot offer the same judgment for Rolling Stone’s upcoming cover story, since the magazine has only released this short preview.

However, Rolling Stone does have an extensive interview with M.I.A., revolving mainly around the ten year anniversary of her debut album, Arular.  As is the case with most interviews with M.I.A., this feature goes all over the place and explores a variety of topics, in alternately entertaining and confounding ways.

Speaking of ten year anniversaries, Stereogum has a profile on Picaresque from The Decemberists.  It’s an uneven essay, with an oddly revisionist bent about the music scene from the previous decade, though it does take the time to acknowledge how this was the beginning of the influential band’s musical peak.

Earlier this week we shared one introductory course in understanding Modest Mouse, and today we have another courtesy of the AV Club.  Unlike the Consequence of Sound piece which focused on songs, Primer focuses on the essential Modest Mouse albums and examining them in context.

Over the Weekend (Mar. 16 Edition)

Some fun news and videos as you prepare/recover from St. Patrick’s Day celebrations…

The biggest news of the weekend is the sudden release of Kendrick Lamar’s new album, To Pimp A Butterfly.  The weekend began with the release of another track, “King Kunta”, before the whole album was released a week early last night on iTunes.  Physical copies are available for purchase through Amazon as of now, with record stores certain to get in on the action as quickly as possible.

Another group gearing up for an upcoming release is Death Grips, who after a couple of false starts are finally set to release the double-disc The Powers That B.  After practically taunting their fans with the free instrumental release Fashion Week (whose tracklist asked the question when the second disc of their final album would be released by spelling out “Jenny Death When”, the band has a physical release date for the album of March 31.  To help tide fans over, the band released the track “On GP” first with one video with the band, and then released a second “official” video.  Enjoy the strangely depressing single, with the help of some magic tricks, below.

If it weren’t for Kendrick moving everything up a week, most of the buzz would certainly be devoted to Modest Mouse’s first full-length album in nearly eight years finally seeing the light of day this week.  To prepare yourself for tomorrow’s release of Strangers to Ourselves, you can read an unconventional 10 song overview of the band from Consequence of Sound as well as reading the account of The Oregonian’s David Greenwald of what the band has been doing in the downtime since the release of We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank.  At the very least, we can all take comfort in Isaac Brock’s statement that the next album will not take nearly as long to reach the band’s fans.

As our readers are well aware, we here at Rust Is Just Right are big fans of Sharon Van Etten, so we were delighted to see this footage from New Zealand of a newscaster who was able to witness and was moved to tears by a surprise performance from the singer.

Over the Weekend (Feb. 16 Edition)

New music, videos, and news as you kill time on this arbitrary holiday…

If you could forgive us for a moment, but today was a bit of a downer when we heard about the passing of Lesley Gore this morning. Though many of the singer-songwriter’s hits have been overlooked over the years, Gore will forever be remembered for the timeless classic “It’s My Party.”

Father John Misty shared an acoustic cover of Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box” for Valentine’s Day, and it’s quite a beautiful and haunting arrangement.  Hopefully this will whet your appetite for our upcoming review of his stellar new album, I Love You, Honeybear.

Over on Reddit, Modest Mouse leaked another track from their upcoming album Strangers to Ourselves, releasing “The Ground Walks, with Time in a Box”, a funky number that calls to mind the groovy “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes.”  Isaac also answered a couple of questions, but since they are few and far between, we’ll provide our favorite exchange:

[–]trippingwalrus 7 points 3 hours ago

No. Fuck you Modest Mouse. I saw you at the Monterey music festival a few years ago and you didn’t even play Float On. Fuck you.

[–]modestmouseband[S] 64 points 3 hours ago

Ha. Hahahaha. Haha. You’re simple. Love ya.

 

My Morning Jacket has been busy with their One Big Holiday festival, but crowd footage has leaked of a couple of new songs that made appearances in their setlist.

Death From Above 1979 has decided that acoustic versions of their songs are not a one-time thing, as you can see by their recent appearance on The Strombo Show, as they with pepper in a few stripped-down versions of their songs during their interview with George Stroumboulopoulos.

Sufjan Stevens released the first single from his upcoming album Carrie & Lowell, and it’s the delicate “No Shade In the Shadow of the Cross”.

And finally, to prepare you for tomorrow’s release of their collaboration Sour Soul, here’s the video to Ghostface Killah and BADBADNOTGOOD’s “Ray Gun”, featuring an appearance from DOOM.  It’s pretty bizarre.

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.