Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Big Mouth Strikes Again: Modest Mouse "We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank"


It's a funny bit of chemistry, how a cool guitarist can make a band seem that much cooler. Johnny Marr's unexpected addition to the Modest Mouse line-up is something that would seemingly be up for constant debate and ruthless scrutiny. The fallout, however, has been relatively tame--even downright pleasant. Marr, while predictably overrated in many circles, is arguably one the best and most accessible guitarists to lend his talents to the world of nervous, sniffling, indie rock. His rhythmic timing and soothing transitions have always instilled a dreamy sobriety to whatever song he lends his talents to. The bouncy, bitter-sweet landscape he lays down on a song like lead-off single "Dashboard" is indicative not only of the careful consideration while composing his pieces--the control he shows without being too flashy or hoggish--but of the seemingly jubilant realization that he is part of a cohesive, talented machine once again.

We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank is Modest Mouse's first album since their crossover surprise Good News For People Who Love Bad News, and quite easily exceeds that album in tone as well as content. Sure, Brock's vocals always have that same dissonant, semi-clever, cheerfully pessimistic ambiance that has gotten the band this far, but there is a vigor here that seemed lacking on Good News... You could speculate that Marr's arrival to the writing process has a lot to do with this, but I'd go ahead and give Brock all the credit in this regard.

While the oddly structured, blissfully strange quirks of an album like Lonesome Crowded West seem to be a thing of the past for this group, when it comes to "mainstream" rock they seem to be a cut above the rest in terms of quality as well as style. While, by early Mouse standards, their recent work may seem painfully... accessible, they are are a group who seem to consistently set up expectations for themselves, only to exceed them.

On We Were Dead... Brock seems to carefully put the world on his shoulders only to then spit in its face with his boiling cynicism and oh-so-clever prose. It's never really that Modest Mouse is dark or depressing...not REALLY. Brock is like that guy you know who always seems to have a negative view on life, but insists that he's a "realist" above all things. This particular aesthetic is offset with Marr's prickly yet silvery soft stylings, and a rhythm section that is as loose and chaotically compelling as anything put behind the band before.

Marr's decision to become a full-time member of the band didn't change the identity of the group necessarily, but it certainly seems to have (ironically enough) injected a little more life into the formula. With this, Modest Mouse's fifth album, they've now fully established themselves as a mainstay within the American rock landscape. We Were Dead... is far from the best work they've released, but that Mouse is long gone. For this version of an accomplished, talented rock group...it's about the best we could hope for.

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