This may come as a surprise, but the old elementary school aphorism has proven true: attitude really is everything. I’m not sure if that cliché was meant to apply to the music world, but Modest Mouse has benefited greatly from just a slight shift in general mood. Good News for People Who Love Bad News preached either that the world was pretty good no matter what troubles came (see: “Float On”) or that the world was the worst place imaginable (see: “The View” and “Bukowski”). For a band whose style falls squarely into the category of indie rock, I’m not entirely sure the more angry moments were entirely appropriate (the same could be said for some of the alt-country experiments). We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank seeks to remedy both problems: there aren’t too many radical deviations from the indie rock formula, and the general attitude seems to be more upbeat. It doesn’t help that the songwriting here is generally excellent; the repetitive guitar licks and driving drum beats will are guaranteed to get stuck in one’s head, and the lyrics have their fair shares of depth and clever wit.
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March Into the Sea is far from the typical album opener; a few seconds of accordion do little to prepare the listener for the incoming cacophony. Isaac Brock sounds rather insane as his nonsensical lyrics (“Our tails wagged and then fell off…let my saxophone free ‘til it’s gone…”) with uproarious laughter and animal-like growling. The musical background is somewhat bipolar, switching between a gentle xylophone-heavy 3/4 verse and a frantic, drum- and power chord-heavy 3/4 chorus. Somehow this madness remains cohesive and overall enjoyable, if overshadowed by Dashboard. Much like the band’s hit single “Float On,” this song revolves around optimism; yet somehow this song is even catchier. An omnipresent plucky guitar riff and driving drum beat accompanies Brock’s lighthearted rants: “Well, the windshield was broken, but I love the fresh air y’know/ oh, the dashboard melted, but we still have the radio!” The constant repetition of the latter line suggests that the song doesn’t have a true chorus, and in a sense it doesn’t. This matters not—Brock’s passion and joy are infectious, and the song is unforgettable as a result.
After this the band seems to stop and catch its collective breath with the more relaxed Fire It Up, starring relatively simple instrumentation and a generally catchy sound. Florida mixes up-tempo, driving verses with a very slow, sparse chorus to great effect, a method which is taken to the extreme with Parting of the Sensory. The first 3:30 or so mostly consist of plodding, acoustic guitar-heavy noise with a few electric notes and the memorable chorus of “Aw, f*ck it, I guess I lost!” At about 3:31, though, the tempo picks up drastically, and Brock enters the realm of insanity once again with as he amusingly slurs and shouts “Someday you will die somehow and someone’s gonna steal your carbon!” multiple times against frantic guitar, violin and clapping patterns. Explaining why this results in a good song is nearly impossible, but rest assured, the madness is quite enjoyable.
And, as before, the band catches its breath with one of its best songs to date, Missed the Boat. The guitars take center stage in this percussion-light tune, and this combined with a group-vocal chorus give this listener the impression that Brock and a few friends are jamming alone on the beach The relaxed vibe works beautifully; the riffs are catchy, and the chorus (while never the same twice) is an instant winner: “Oh, and we carried it all so well/ as if we got a new position/ oh, and I laugh all the way to hell/ singing, yes, this is a fine promotion…” The atmosphere is fantastic from beginning to end. Little Motel is even calmer; Brock delivers the early song in little more than a whisper, and minimalist percussion and excellent guitar effects have the listener in a near-trance as the chorus of “That’s what I’m waiting for, darlin’,” repeats time and time again.
Spitting Venom is about as close to ‘epic’ as Modest Mouse can get; the first four minutes alternate between a bouncy acoustic sound and raucous electric rock, featuring Brock’s most impassioned and rapid-fire rants yet. This sound fades away into a trumpet-heavy melodic stanza consisting of two lines whispered about thirteen times: “Cheer up baby, it wasn’t always quite so bad/ for every venom that then came out, the antidote was had…” The beautiful trumpet line and soothing guitar make this another repetitive but still immensely enjoyable winner. People as Places as People kicks the energy back up for a typical but addicting indie rock jam before Invisible wraps the album with another up-tempo rocker. The lyrics here reach (and exceed) the nonsensical standards of the first track (“Oh, well lesson dance and shoot to God a storm-suffered owl/ you’re not invisible inside your car!”) but the song succeeds thanks to a heavy reliance on impressive guitar riffs and raw energy (particularly as Jeremiah Green unleashes a lengthy snare roll towards the end).
It may be apparent to the reader that few flaws seem apparent on this album, and this is mostly an accurate statement. Education is merely forgettable, lacking both energy and a particularly catchy hook, and Steam Engenius is simply too bizarre for its own good. I love the eerie chants of “Boogie-woogie, boogie-ooo” in the chorus, but the song’s lack of consistency, over-repetition of certain stanzas and strange lyrics (“Your chitters are split in half, a mechanical sacrificial calf for you…stasisity’s what you brought like a rickshaw getting pulled around by another rickshaw…”) act as a hindrance (and the fact that it’s bookended by “Little Motel” and “Spitting Venom” doesn’t help).
That being said, the flaws are few and not extremely significant. The mixture of infectious hooks and dreamlike relaxed tunes is hard to beat. The whole album may not be as experimental as Good News…, but in this case that makes it more cohesive and enjoyable. This is not an album to miss if indie rock is your cup of tea.
1. March into the Sea--87%
3. Fire It Up--86%
5. Parting of the Sensory--88%
6. Missed the Boat--98%
7. We’ve Got Everything--83%
8. Fly Trapped in a Jar--82%
10. Little Motel--95%
11. Steam Engenius--79%
12. Spitting Venom--92%
13. People as Places as People--89%
4.5 Stars, rounded up
Good for Fans of…The Shins