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Modest Mouse - Good News For People Who Love Bad News

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Artist: Modest Mouse

Album: Good News For People Who Love Bad News

Label: Epic

Review date: Apr. 16, 2004

The fan base of every band is probably a little bit strange, but Modest Mouse’s is no doubt stranger than most. It’s a big group – lingering grunge fans, high school burnouts, aging jocks, college radio types, and quite a few music fans who aren’t so easily tagged. Modest Mouse isn’t a certified Big Cultural Deal – they aren’t yet the Flaming Lips – but they are well on their way. And bucking recent trends for a rock band, they’re not getting there by proclaiming that rock music is dead, or that they have found a stylistic way forward. In their 10 years of existence, they’ve demonstrated an interest in any number of rock subgenres.

It used to be that a Modest Mouse album would almost literally contain something for everybody. Consider the way that This is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About transitioned from furious, nearly incoherent songs like “Exit Does Not Exist” directly into quiet, folk-inspired songs like “Talkin’ Shit About a Pretty Sunset.” Or, on The Lonesome Crowded West, how the band’s music could be…well, pick your adjective ("spastic," "abrasive," "quiet"...).

Their major label debut The Moon and Antarctica was a more focused and polished album than they had previously seemed capable of creating. Unlike the band's previous two efforts, The Moon traded difficulty for immediacy. While you could puzzle over The Lonesome Crowded West for weeks and admit that you just didn’t get it, there was no puzzling over The Moon and Antarctica. That album communicated two fears: that youthful loneliness and dislocation might just be permanent, and that a fixation on mortality was draining each day of its meaning. It did so against a glossy musical background, through 15 songs that displayed impressive melodic sophistication.

Good News For People Who Love Bad News was rumored to be a return to the grab-bag approach of earlier albums, or at least that was the thinking once word got around that Brock had picked up the banjo and brought the Dirty Dozen Brass Band into the studio. The rumors were at best partially true. This is a more varied album than The Moon and Antarctica (which did seem to have only one speed), and with the return of original member Dan Gallucci, Brock appears to have revived the heavy lead guitar playing of their early work.

The first single, “Float On,” brings back the upper-register fret work of “Exit Does Not Exist,” and although Brock bemoans his endless bad luck, he forces himself to embrace the power of positive thought: “Alright already, we’ll all float on.” “Ocean Breathes Salty” and “The World at Large” are both depressed about transitivity – “The World at Large” is Brock’s apologia for not being able to settle in a single place; “Ocean Breathes Salty” is the other side of the coin, a tell-off to those who would require an explanation. In both cases, though, Brock finds some reason for optimism, however tenuous. “It may not be much, but I feel like I’m making the most,” he sings on “The World at Large,” while on “Ocean Breathes Salty” he muses, “maybe we’ll get lucky and we’ll both grow old. I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know. I hope so.” Ironically, “The View,” the most straightforward rock song, is also the most topically dark. Over a bouncing beat from drummer Benjamin Weikel and bassist Eric Judy, Brock belittles notions of progress great and small: “For every step ahead we could have just been seated. We are fixed.” By the end he concedes that “if life’s not beautiful without the pain, well I’d just rather never even see beauty again.” On the printed page it looks worse than gloomy, but set against Gallucci’s keyboards, and in Brock’s muffled, multi-tracked voice, it sounds more like common sense.

There are quiet tracks, like the epic “Blame it On the Tetons,” and novel tracks, like the Dirty Dozen guest turn “This Devil’s Workday.” There are even two songs that mimic the thunder-and-lightning dynamics of early Modest Mouse, “Bury Me With It,” and “Black Cadillac.” (Indeed, when I first heard these songs in concert I assumed that they came from the early catalog.) Unlike their first recordings, though, which sounded like the work of a band trying to find its voice (or a band screwing around in the studio) these songs have an obvious self-assurance. At the risk of hair-splitting, they demonstrate the difference between members of Modest Mouse playing a folk song and a folk-influenced Modest Mouse song.

And where has all of this gotten them? Well, as hinted before, the Mouse now are perceived to represent what’s going on in that broad slice of American rock music between the underground and the mainstream. Minivan commercials and The O.C. aside, they’ve gotten into this position without a lot of extraneous hype. Here’s to the spotlight finally falling on those who deserve it.

By Tom Zimpleman

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