By: Eric G.
It only makes sense that Modest Mouse signed to a major label. It’s really not that big of a deal. The good bands almost always do, and the ones that don’t usually end up slipping into obscurity by way of their own stubborn ideals. Not every band can be Fugazi, nor would every band want to be. No, Modest Mouse hasn’t hired a choir or added a horn section or anything cheesy just because it’s on Epic now. It’s actually making less money on the sales of each record than it did on Up, but the budget for recording is much bigger with Epic. The band chose its music over money- how could that be a sell-out? The music on this major label debut is just as jarring and eerily melodic as anything Modest Mouse has done before, but it’s never sounded so sublime. Sure, the production is far superior, but only naive elitist purists would complain about that. This is an album to behold. Pick it up. Smell the inlay card. Put your headphones on and absorb its idiosyncrasies. There won’t be an album like it this year.
Modest Mouse is equal parts white trash and unpretentious existentialism. Isaac Brock’s lyrics are self-deprecating and ponderous, matching the sprawling quirkiness of his guitar-based compositions. The band towers over the wall of indie rock because of Brock’s unconventional narrative-style vocal delivery. The music uses familiar indie rock ingredients like jangly guitars and quirky metrical shifts, but the artistry of the arrangements blows the typical lo-fi act out of the water. There’s no comfort zone in this music. It’s unsettling and engaging. What is soft and serene one moment turns abrasive and corrosive the next but never in the typical ‘let’s stomp on the distortion pedal now’ sense- it’s all swathed in intricate interplay.
Switching musical masks without losing its core dynamic is Modest Mouse’s forte. The Moon & Antarctica has a lush and foreboding landscape. The songs all seem to be born of eccentric, nursery-rhyme harmonies, booming percussion, and stylish musicianship. The production is staggeringly good. Red Red Meat’s Brian Deck coats the record in a thick film of found sounds and electronic noises. The band’s playing is raw and cerebral. The album flows like a concept album; it even has all the extraneous instrumentation intrinsic to every rock masterpiece: cellos, violins, pianos, loops, etc. Modest Mouse has arrived, and this album is its ________________ (fill in the blank with appropriate monumental album from rock and roll’s history).
“3rd Planet” tiptoes into your speakers with an unobtrusive acoustic arpeggio. Isaac Brock’s strange, twangy voice careens over top the melody when out of nowhere razor sharp guitars cut through the haze, strumming against pounding drums and a winding bass line. Could the rest of the album possibly be this good? You bet. “Gravity Rides Everything” wouldn’t be out of place on Love And Rockets’ Earth Sun Moon, and that’s not a slight. Brock’s sustained vocal lines make the tiny hairs on your neck shoot upright. The crystalline acoustic guitar floats amongst spaced-out effects and pitch-bended harmonies. Congratulations, Modest Mouse. You have just made everyone who proclaimed The Flaming Lips geniuses last year feel mighty silly.
By the time “Dark Center Of The Universe” comes on, you’ve already committed to selling off a handful of CD’s to make room for the entire Modest Mouse catalogue (that is if you don’t already have it). Warped noises loom in the background while Brock again graces us with his strained melodies. When the song kicks in with that bleating electric guitar riff, you’re scratching your head wondering how this band got this good without your really even noticing. Few bands make this type of creative leap from one album to the next. Radiohead made quite a jump from Pablo Honey to The Bends, but I dare say that this is even more impressive. Modest Mouse is a trio for God’s sakes, and Radiohead has five guys making all those noises.
“Tiny Cities Made Of Ashes” surges forward like some sinister disco song. Brock’s double tracked vocals (one spoken/one half-sung) glide alongside the repetitive groove of the bass line. Ghostly keyboards surface in the chorus, signaling the onslaught of Brock’s frantic yelp. This is sleek and sophisticated music for a band that started out on K Records. “I Came As A Rat” starts off sounding like The Cure’s “In Your House”, but quickly dissipates into a simple acoustic strum-along replete with ominous background clatter and Brock’s melismatic voice. In “Lives” Brock manages to churn out universal truths disguised as casual observations: “Everyone’s afraid of their own life/if you could be anything you want I bet you’d be disappointed/Am I right?” Lyrics are typically a band’s downfall, but Modest Mouse retains a homespun slant in its philosophical poetry.
The Moon & Antarctica ends with a quirky stab at punk. Distorted vocals ride beneath discordant guitars. The staccato verse opposes a thunderous chorus. Even in its most rocking song Modest Mouse opts for the atypical use of clean guitar overdubs. During the fuzz bass break down an acoustic guitar even worms its way in. The last words of the album are at once funny and profound: “And the one thing you can tell about human beings is this: they ain’t made of nothing but water and shit” (“What People Are Made Of”). Records like this don’t happen every day much less every year. For a group as erratic and ingenuous as Modest Mouse, The Moon & Antarctica is a mind-blowing achievement, and I, for one, will continue to preach its gospel and worship at its shrine.