Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Modest Mouse. The Lonesome Crowded West (Up, 1997)

"I was in heaven/ I was in hell/ Believe in neither/ But fear them as well."

There are essentially two eras of Modest Mouse: Before Moon and Antarctica (BMA) and After Moon and Antarctica (AMA). AMA Modest Mouse is a powerful animal, no question, and has released some great records since their 2000 signing to major label Epic. The Moon and Antarctica, Good News for People who Love Bad News, and We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank all boast thrillingly abrasive blasts of blitzkrieg guitar and alarmingly sophisticated song structures, moving Modest Mouse well beyond their "See a retarded boy sing Pixies songs" (thanks, Band-a-Minute: beginnings. Modest Mouse have calmed down a little bit, hired Johnny Marr, and remain an enjoyable, engaging band, one of the best major label outfits working today. Well done.

But BMA Modest Mouse... man oh man. Now there was a mightily talented group, frightening in its abilities and relentless in its attack. When I first heard The Moon and Antarctica, I thought, "Wow, these guys have chilled the eff out," because it was such a smoother, less caustic collection than 1996's This is a Long Drive For Someone With Nothing to Think About and especially 1997's The Lonesome Crowded West. Both of those records find guitarist/singer Isaac Brock, bassist Eric Judy, and drummer Jeremiah Green bringing forth harsh, pitilessly hooky post-hardcore creations informed by Neil Young, Built to Spill, and, yes, the Pixies, with moebius-strip melodies and gifted-stoner observational lyrics obsessed with wide-open spaces and their tendency to drive people to abstraction.

I thought Modest Mouse were great when I was first introduced to them via Long Drive, but affection blossomed into full-blown infatuation with the emergence of The Lonesome Crowded West. From first note to last, Modest Mouse's second full-length demands the listener's attention, as chock full as it is with unforgettable riffs, clever lyrical motifs, and awe-inspiring feats of instrumental prowess. Brock, Judy, and Green are here at the height of their collective powers, playing off each other to magnificent effect, reading each other's thrusts and feints, creating a feedback loop of pure rock power, and creating one of the finest testaments to the power trio on record. There are tracks on Lonesome Crowded so sonically arresting and monumental, at times it's hard to believe that there's just three of them playing.

"From the top of the ocean — Yeah!/ To the bottom of the sky — Goddamn!" shrieks Brock by way of introduction on the album's first track "Teeth Like God's Shoeshine," which, like so many songs on Lonesome Crowded, moves effortlessly between thrashing, distorted tantrums and quieter, almost elegiac passages of thoughtful reflection. "The malls are the soon-to-be ghost towns," goes the subdued bridge. "Well so long, farewell, good-bye." Modest Mouse return to this dynamic time and again, and it never ceases to excite. When things finally come to a head at the 5:16 mark, the band sets to destruction with abandon, Brock's high-on-fire harmonic guitar squeals projecting anger and confusion.

"Heart Cooks Brain" buries itself in a mid-tempo groove, Judy and Green laying down a bulletproof rhythm track underneath Brock's looped riffs and some lazily delivered turntable scratches. The song also features some of the album's best lyrics, including lines like, "My brain's the cliff/ My heart's the bitter buffalo," and, "They tore one down and erected another there/ Match of the century, absence versus thin air." Brock has always had way with words, twisting stock phrases into druggily profound aphorisms and finding the mystery and dread in the commonplace. "Cowboy Dan," an unassailable album (and, frankly, career) highlight, contains gems like, "Cowboy Dan's a major player in the cowboy scene/ He goes to the reservation drinks and gets mean/ I didn't move to the city, the city moved to me/ And I want out desperately," and "Every time you think you're walking/ You're just moving the ground," delivered in an unhinged, vengeful croak as the bass, drums, and guitar steadily ratchet up the tension through ferocious tempo and tonal shifts.

With regards to the rhythm section, respect is clearly due. Judy's agile bass keeps the melodies in play even as Brock murders his guitar and buries it in a shallow grave, and Green's drumming is some of the best of the decade. Check out "Trucker's Atlas" (another career-making turn) for proof of his leviathan chops: for over 10 minutes, Green is the engine for an epic statement of purpose, hitting every drum in his set seemingly all at once, and never coming close to falling out of the pocket. Here Green proves that he is Modest Mouse, in the sense that Modest Mouse's sound couldn't have existed without him. He's integral, the not-so-secret weapon, similar to what Janet Weiss was to Sleater-Kinney.

I've liked Modest Mouse since they left Up to record on Epic, and I'm glad they've managed to carve out some mainstream success without becoming lame. But in the days before The Moon and Antarctica, Modest Mouse sounded perilously close to flaming out on each record, managing to reign in their destructive impulses only by the grace of God, and repeatedly capturing lightning-in-a-bottle brilliance. The Lonesome Crowded West may be a surprise to folks who have never heard this incarnation of Modest Mouse, but I guarantee it won't be a disappointment.