By Gus Edelen O’Brien
CatlinSpeak (Portland, OR)
Modest Mouse’s rise to fame is an odd story for an indie-rock band. They began in obscurity as a group from Issaquah, Wash., who wrote 12 minute songs about trucks, and garnered critical acclaim. All of this changed in 2004 when the band hit gold with a catchy, feel good single that still managed to keep some of their defining qualities, while at the same time becoming the anthem of 2004. “Float On” brought the group to Top 40 stardom while their indie-rock peers like Spoon, Built To Spill, and Death Cab For Cutie, remained cult favorites or faded into obscurity.
Modest Mouse is no one-hit wonder, however, and over their career they have created many beautiful, neurotic, and paranoid albums that have been almost universally praised and are all worth a listen. Part of this greatness comes from their lack of a large audience which let the band say exactly what they want to say. However, with the Top 40 world awaiting another “Float On,” their audience has increased, and if Isaac Brock, the lead singer, wants to say something important, he has to coat it in sound, or it might be deemed to bitter to sell.
After they struck pop-gold, Modest Mouse’s sound changed slightly in response to this larger audience. They aimed for more introspective pieces to happier, classifiable, indie-rock. In “Stranger to Ourselves,” Modest Mouse continues in this direction. If there is a theme that persists through “Strangers to Ourselves,” it is a theme of humanity’s apathy about the earth, a theme that has previously arisen in their work. Songs like the radio hit, “Lampshades on Fire,” compare the human race to roving partiers who are making mistakes and consuming resources without regard for the earth. Then when the planet’s resources are used up, they move to another planet and make the same mistakes all over again. “Coyotes” continues with this theme of our apathy hurting the environment and the animals within it. The big ideas Brock once incorporated into his music have been altered to become more subtle.
Modest Mouse is known for its unique take on alternative rock, Isaac Brock’ s throaty scream, its hammering guitar playing, and its elaborate song titles. “Strangers to Ourselves” is no different, but when Isaac Brock sang songs in the past he sounded truly angry. Now he just sounds more ticked off than anything. What Modest Mouse is really good at,however, is completely redefining what makes them great in one track or two. “Float On” and “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes” completely reinvented Modest Mouse’s sound repertoire and expanded expectations for future releases. No song on this album really does this, but it’s still a treat to hear a well-respected veteran band, even if all you get is them going through the motions instead of completely reinventing their sounds.
The storytelling in “Strangers to Ourselves” seems faded in a way which contrasts with some earlier albums. Some songs appear blatantly obvious in what they are trying to reference, whether it is global warming or Isaac Brock’s brother Ansel. Subtlety and metaphor that made diving into and analyzing the earlier songs more enjoyable is not found on this new album. Modest Mouse’s songs have migrated from being more narrative-driven tunes to more stereotypical indie songs. From looking at the lyrics we can see the shifting of lyrical content from their more introspective albums with narrative songs.
“Coyotes tiptoe in the snow after dark/ At home with the ghosts in the national parks/Mankind’s behaving like some serial killers/ Giant ol’ monsters afraid of the sharks.” From the beautiful, while not lyrically adept, “Coyotes,” from the LP “Strangers To Ourselves”
Compare this to “Cowboy Dan” on the album, “The Lonesome Crowded West.”
“Well, Cowboy Dan’s a major player in the cowboy scene/He goes to the reservation drinks and gets mean. He’s gonna start a war/ He hops in his pickup puts the pedal to the floor/And says I got mine but I want more.”
Some of the songs on this album are impressive in a way only a Modest Mouse song can be. Even a lesser Modest Mouse song is still pretty good. Songs like “The Best Room” and “Strangers To Ourselves” show Modest Mouse at their most cynical and rewarding. On the flip side, however, songs like “God Is An Indian And You’re An A**hole” and “The Tortoise and the Tourist” sound more like someone making fun of Modest Mouse than the actual band.
More Modest Mouse is always good news, but frankly I was hoping for something more like the classic albums they’ve created in their career like “The Moon and Antarctica” or “The Lonesome Crowded West.” Hopefully this album is a gateway to more Modest Mouse albums because this is their first album in eight years. There’s nothing special about Modest Mouse’s “Strangers to Ourselves.”
Catlin Gabel Grade: Fairly Good
WANT Staff note: Listen to “Strangers to Ourselves” Here
Photo Credit: Modest Mouse