The Lonesome Crowded West

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.

Modest Mouse, Live at the Crystal Ballroom

Last Thursday saw the return of one of the most significant and unique voices in indie rock, as Modest Mouse kicked off a new tour with a two-night homestand at Portland’s Crystal Ballroom.  It was a personal return for me as well, since I hadn’t seen the band perform at the Crystal since they did a four-night run back in 2004, right as “Float On” broke the band into the mainstream and out of college radio late-night playlists.  Fans across the nation were eager to know if we would finally hear some of the new material from their oft-delayed follow-up to their 2009 EP No One’s First and You’re Next (or to go back even further, to their last album, 2007’s We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank).  To quickly answer the question, no we didn’t hear any new music per se, though a few songs were new to me (“Sugar Boats”, “Shit in Your Cut”, and “Lampshades on Fire” have not been released yet, though they had been a part of a few scattered live performances recently).

A handy concert calendar

A handy concert calendar

People have had varying experiences with Modest Mouse concerts, and I’ve read a few reviews where people were disappointed with their live set.  After seeing them five times over 10 years at a variety of venues, I’m ready to say that it’s more likely than not that you’ll see a stellar show if you’re a true fan of the band.  Things may have been different back in the early days where you weren’t certain what kind of state Isaac would show up in, but even the performance where he came off as a bit drunk had its charms, as I remember a particularly funny conversation that he had with an audience member on why they had trouble playing “Dramamine” (something along the lines of “it’s our first song from our first record, it’s hard to remember how to play it, it’s been a while!”).  Every other performance has been outstanding, through all the different compositions of the band, with a set list that varies quite a bit from show-to-show.  Chances are you’ll hear at least one deep cut from an early album at a show, which should be enough enticement for fans–it’s not a strict “greatest hits” playlist, in other words.

The night began with a slow start, as the crowd became restless when the band took its time before hitting the stage.  It didn’t help that it was apparently many people’s first experience at a rock show, as you would hear random cheers when a roadie would come up to check an instrument or when a song from the system PA would end (here’s my quick reminder: the show hasn’t started until they turn off the house lights–just settle in until then).  And initially, it seemed that the band was having to deal with first-show issues as instruments and mixing seemed to be an issue (though the latter is definitely a continual problem with shows at the Crystal).  But by the time they got to “Ocean Breathes Salty” with the second song, all was forgiven as the crowd sang along with all the words.

We were treated to a career-spanning setlist, so fans from all eras of the band should have been pleased.  Personal highlights included the rarity “Baby Blue Sedan” and the trio from the brilliant The Moon & Antarctica, especially a rambunctious version of “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes” that along with a raucous “Doin’ the Cockroach” formed a hell of a one-two punch to close the show.  While the inclusion of “The World at Large” was to almost-be-expected (but not guaranteed, especially considering that “Float On” was absent from both nights’ setlists), it still was a moving experience, as a deeper inspection of lyrics over the years has revealed to me a beautifully melancholic perspective that I find has taken on increasing personal relevance with each passing day.  (Though, unlike the performance in the link, Isaac played his usual guitar, possibly due to the fact that if they kept up the same instrumental setup over the years, they’d have to increase their keyboard budget significantly).

Over the course of the show, Isaac gradually loosened up and engaged with the crowd, possibly due to the fact that the venue had trapped in most of the heat on an unseasonably warm 90 degree day in May.  We were treated to two great random stories, one referring to cat food and the other to his spectacularly short stint as an actor.  For the first, Isaac told us how when walking past the venue earlier in the afternoon, he noticed a strange smell, later determining it to be cat food; he then remarked how that smell reminded him of visits to his grandmother’s house, but then he remembered that his grandmother had no cats (abrupt end of the story on purpose and warned about beforehand).  The other was related directly to the chants coming from the back of the crowd* that he remarked “Chanting is hard to hear”, getting the crowd to chant that as a counter.  He then told us about his work as an extra on The Pelican Brief, where he and his girlfriend were part of a group of protesters that were picketing whatever they wanted and shouting, just as B-Roll footage; the kicker was that it was such a pain in the ass that his girlfriend at the time didn’t bother to show up the next day, but he did and signed her in as well, meaning that he got both his $50 for the day and hers as well (as he said, it was clear that he needed the extra money more than she did).

Overall, the band sounded great, with the current lineup well-prepared to tackle the diverse instrumentation that is required of the Modest Mouse catalog.  Hopefully over the course of the tour we’ll hear some more news about a potential new album, but meanwhile if you’re still on the fence to attend one of their shows, take my word for it and go.

*The chants were for a former band member, and when Isaac realized this, his answer was “Maybe…I don’t know…we’ll see.”