I’ve had a curious relationship with Modest Mouse. The first time I heard them was in Eugene, Oregon, when I was in college at the good ol’ University of Oregon. I was browsing the racks at Face the Music (which no longer exists) and they were blasting The Moon and Antarctica. While I recognized and approved of the Tom Waits influence, I can’t say I was enamored of the music. In fact, I found it to be pretty fucking obnoxious, honestly. The first time I liked a Modest Mouse song was, oddly enough, when I heard “Float On” on the radio (those of you who tire of my constant bitching about how shitty the radio is might be tempted to cry “hypocrite” but I never said that the radio never plays good music. It mostly never plays good music). I was working overnight at Target, also in Eugene, and I swear “Float On” was the only good song we heard on the radio and we heard it almost every night. I was stunned to find out that it was a Modest Mouse song and even more stunned when I ended up not just liking but loving Good News for People Who Like Bad News. In fact, I love that album more all the time.
And now I find myself in the odd position of being something of a Modest Mouse fan. I own all of their albums and most of their EPs and the stuff I used to find obnoxious is now really interesting to me (remember: I like Captain Beefheart) and my appreciation for Isaac Brock’s writing and ability to completely lose his shit vocally without going emo has only grown. I saw them live last year and, though the internet warned of vast inconsistency in the quality of Modest Mouse live shows, I found them to be an extremely tight and wildly entertaining band in concert. Lucky me.
Modest Mouse’s last two albums, Good News and We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, have been their poppiest yet. Some would be inclined to say their best yet, but that would only be half right. Good News is their best, followed closely by The Moon and Antarctica. I’m one of those guys who like 99% of Modest Mouse’s output and while that may earn me the scorn of some, it really just means there’s more for me to enjoy than there is for them. To paraphrase The National, all the wine (where “wine” = “good Modest Mouse music”) is all for me.
So now Brock and his revolving cast of characters have released a new EP, No One’s First and You’re Next, made up of stuff recorded during sessions for their last two albums, though it might be misleading to dismiss these songs as mere cast-offs. They’re all high quality tunes, many of them are even excellent, including “Satellite Skin,” “History Sticks to Your Feet,” and “Autumn Beds,” which sounds like it could’ve made the cut for an album by Brock’s apparently one-off side project Ugly Casanova (whose album I also own and, yes, it is awesome).
People who love Isaac Brock’s voice are probably (definitely) a minority (of which I am a card-carrying member) so it’s more likely that people come to Modest Mouse songs for the music and Brock’s lyrics as much as anything else. Musically, No One’s First is great, pretty heavy on the electric guitar (this is, I think, the Johnny Marr influence. So if Johnny Marr wasn’t the boring part of The Smiths, who can we blame? Oh yeah – Morrissey was also in the Smiths) and banjo. There are a lot of great lyrical turns to be had, too – on “Satellite Skin,” Brock asks, “well how the heck’d ya think you could beat them/ at the same time that you’re trying to be them”; offers “I drew a blank/ we put it in a frame” on “Guilty Cocker Spaniels”; and, in typical Isaac Brock fasion, he rips your rose colored glasses off and crushes them on the sidewalk on “History Sticks to Your Feet”: “optimism doesn’t change the facts/ just what you’re gonna see.”
It’s easy to see how a lot of this stuff didn’t fit the overall vibe of Good News and/or We Were Dead, but it would be laughably inaccurate to say it’s because they’re not good enough (earlier, I said it might be misleading, but I’ve listened to the album several times since I wrote that sentence and I’m now convinced that “laughably inaccurate” is more appropriate than “misleading”. Why did it take me so long between the composition of these two sentences? It’s been a long week, don’t ask. Also, I’ve been listening to this EP almost non-stop since I got it). Some of these songs are far superior, quality-wise, to stuff that made the cut on We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, but they don’t fit the mood of the record. And No One’s First features, back to back, two pretty compelling stylistic departures: “The Whale Song” (which centers around the haunting line, “I know I was the scout/ I should’ve found a way out/ so that everyone could find a way out”) and “Perpetual Motion Machine,” which is straight out of some bizarre musical starring Isaac Brock as… well, I dunno. I’m not sure what role Brock would play in a musical, but I do know that if more musicals had people like him in them and music like his band makes on No One’s First and You’re Next, I would probably hate musicals slightly less than I do now.