Modest Mouse: We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank

By Dennis Cook

Few things are this wholly engaged, this fiercely dedicated to the manifold joys of sound, this willing to grapple big concepts. Seven albums on, Modest Mouse remain a restless powerhouse but one tempered by time and the scar tissue it leaves.

From the cheerless title to the generally jittery disposition, We Were Dead tackles this Titanic age, clawing at excess and indulgence with dirty nails while simultaneously reveling in the gorged voluptuousness of it all. Opener "March Into The Sea" is a demented toy foghorn, a shrill call-to-arms that chips away at your reserve, shouting, "If food needed pleasing you'd suck all the seasoning off. Suck it off!" Every step towards high ground is met with fresh descent. Mouse-termind Isaac Brock seems to say, "Fight it all you want. Fight yourself. Fight your fellow man. None of it matters because most of us will be breathing salt water before too long."

I went into MM's second major label release thinking I might like it and wound up quickly and illogically in love. It speaks to a disquiet spirit haunting our times, burning incense for the living on their steady walk to the grave. That it manages to be WAY more fun than that sounds is Brock and company''s gift.

First single "Dashboard" is the curious marriage of Wild Cherry's "Play That Funky Music White Boy" and Sisters of Mercy's "This Corrosion." Will it end up in a deeply strange Ford commercial like "Float On"? Mayhap, and it's not the only Caucasian groover here likely to crop up in ads and hipper TV shows. "We've Got Everything" and "People As Places As People" have the same shoulder shakin', blue-eyed disco soul. "Florida" bears the markings of newest member, legendary Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr. Call it "A Rush and a Push and the Retirement Land Is Ours," a short blast of that desperate-yet-catchy thing the Morrisey/Marr pairing excelled at.

Many critics have downplayed Marr's contributions here but that's no surprise given how little credit he's gotten for The Smiths' monstrously influential catalog. This is the man who created the riff to "How Soon Is Now?" and the irresistible hooks of "Bigmouth Strikes Again" and "Hand In Glove." Here, as in The Smiths, he's aggressively subtle - filling in the spaces others leave, accenting the good parts, distracting from the lesser ones. There's a stratospheric climb to his playing that leaves smoke trails barely visible to the ear. His presence, first as a guest and subsequently as a full touring member, makes perfect sense. Brock like Morrissey is a prickly iconoclast who needs a more musical counterpart to balance his eccentricities. Marr does just that in bewitching ways.

Everywhere is Brock's singular singing, a voice made for literature – sharp, all over the place, sweet in the strangest places. His mouth is a razor beak pecking at the world's seed bell, making it swing and ring and throw off detritus. It's always exciting to see where he'll go next. Like Dylan, no one sings his songs like him because the very fabric of the man is woven into every note. Add the fact that he looks like a zaftig Ian Dury and you've got one of unlikeliest pop idols in many moons.

I've long admired Modest Mouse's tenacity and commitment to a unique vision but rarely enjoyed listening to them near as much as We Were Dead. The bells & whistles of major label studio frills work very well for them. The most apt comparison I can come up with is R.E.M.. Both bands stuck to their guns, toiling in the indie fields for a decade until eventually they became the mainstream without compromise or premeditation. Sometimes, though rarely, the truly good stuff triumphs. Like R.E.M.'s classic second album for Warner Brothers, Out Of Time, this is the work of wiser souls, comfortable with their wrinkles, laying out honest glosses on life that may not always comfort but never fail in their honesty.

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[Published on: 3/23/07]

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