There are those bands that stay artistically relevant by significantly altering their sound for each album they make. There are other bands that stay vital through keeping most of their core elements the same while making minor adjustments. And then there are bands like Modest Mouse, who somehow feel like they’ve gone both of these routes at the exact same time.
The similarity factor comes from the fact that Isaac Brock, one of the most charismatic and unique vocalists in alternative music, is such an all-encompassing force in the band that it makes any Modest Mouse song instantly recognizable as such. While Brock has made great strides in using his voice as a studio instrument over course of the band’s major label albums, his trademark yelps, growls and rants haven’t changed, remaining as overwhelming and impressive as ever; same with his esoteric, existentialist lyrics.
But the crew of musicians surrounding Brock regularly changes and shifts over the years, perhaps explaining why the sound of each Modest Mouse album has been so different from its brethren – The Lonesome Crowded West was as raw and loose as The Moon and Antarctica was epic and cold and as Good News For People Who Love Bad News was twisted and poppy.Not unlike Wilco, who are also currently a six-piece, the Mouse crew has seen guitarists and drummers and bass players come and go through its five albums and countless EPs and the band’s sound regularly shifts accordingly. The core trio of Brock, drummer Jeremiah Green and bassist Eric Judy has been around for most of the ride, but only Brock has been a member of the band in each and every incarnation. It’s such a flexible lineup that it was able to incorporate legendary Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr as a full-time member while writing and recording We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank.
Marr’s addition to the band has taken up a good deal of press leading up to the album’s release, and understandably so. You often hear of music’s elder statesmen (or women) working with newer bands on a song or two, or sometimes even a whole album, but there was something unbelievable about a guitarist as revered and distinctive as Marr actually JOINING a long-standing band like Modest Mouse. It led to an Internet-wide debate over whether ‘Modest Marr’ or ‘Marrdest Mouse’ was a better moniker for the new lineup and, more importantly, extensive discussion over how Marr would alter the band’s sound.
Funny enough, not much. In fact, We Were Dead… is probably the first Modest Mouse album that completely, 100 per cent sounds like a Modest Mouse album. Instead of shifting the band into a bold new direction, Marr has instead helped refine and combine the vast catalogue of Modest Mouse sounds and structures into an album that goes few places the band hasn’t been before but is still as worthwhile a journey as ever.
Continuing with the sound that made Good News… the first Modest Mouse album that could rightfully be played at a party, songs like “Dashboard” and “Missed the Boat” rank among the most unashamedly pop creations that the band has ever laid to tape. The latter features is one of three tracks featuring the serenely clear backing vocals of The Shins’ James Mercer, and while one would think they would clash with Brock’s edgy and raw delivery, they instead blend into the mix perfectly and add a nice melodic contrast. As songs like “We’ve Got Everything” and “Fire it Up” demonstrate, what stands out most about We Were Dead… is that the instrumentation and production is the cleanest and clearest of the band’s career. While this might turn off lo-fi connoisseurs, most will appreciate the results that come from a band becoming more comfortable in the studio.
Besides, there’s lots of material on here harking back to the band’s earlier work that will appease long-time fans, even if the production values have seen a significant spiffing up. “Fly Trapped in a Jar” is one of the most charmingly abrasive things the band has done in a long time. “Parting of the Sensory” could easily have felt at home on The Moon and Antarctica. And the 8-plus minutes of “Spitting Venom” is epic Modest Mouse at its finest, throwing acoustics, electrics, keyboards and horns into the mix as it simmers, cools and builds itself up again and again.
Sure there’s a couple of tracks that feel superfluous and skipable – namely “Education” and “Steam Engenius,” which come off as boring and redundant compared to the other material here – but all things considered, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank is like a smorgasbord of everything that makes Modest Mouse worthwhile. At the same time, its sonic inconsistency and lack of an identity of its own is what keeps it from reaching the same heights as the band’s best work.
So how come I seem a bit more positive on this one than I did The Shins’ Wincing the Night Away, for which I had similar complaints? Perhaps it’s because this album feels less like Modest Mouse is repeating themselves and more like they’re combining the various incarnations of Modest Mouse into a whole new fusion, one that seems exciting regardless of its lack of innovation. So while it’s unlikely to end up anyone’s favourite Modest Mouse album, few but the most hardened old-school snobs will find much to complain about on this ship (what, you expected me to get through the entire review without a single lame nautical reference?).