Tuesday, March 20, 2007

We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank

Ever since I heard former Smith's guitarist Johnny Marr had joined Modest Mouse in an inter-generational, intercontinental pairing I could find no precedent for, I've been intrigued by this album. My interest grew when I learned the album would be titled We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank -- a neat amalgamation of the themes of mortality and disaster, and the crutch of pessimism, that lead singer and songwriter Isaac Brock has explored over his career with Modest Mouse.

Quasi-jilted enthusiasts tend to scrutinize Modest Mouse's surprisingly large body of work -- they have now released more songs than Led Zeppelin --for the point in time when the band "sold out." It's either 2000's The Moon and Antarctica or 2004's Good News for People Who Love Bad News, depending who's whining about it.

In anticipation of this album I've been listening to all sorts of Modest Mouse lately, and have reached the conclusion their overall quality has been pretty consistent. They do, on Good News For People Who Love Bad News, seem to speed things up a notch, and add that extra touch of bounciness the typical kid on Myspace would gravitate to.

Sure "Float On," the mega-hit from that album, might have once occupied radio space between Jessica Simpson and Hoobastank, but put that away and just listen to it and it sounds like a Modest Mouse song. Maybe a slightly sanitized Modest Mouse song -- but it doesn't sound like anything else.

We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank also bears Modests Mouse's unmistakable and idiosyncratic mark. The first time through I didn't even realize Johnny Marr was there, as Isaac Brock's vocals -- snarling and chanting as they always are -- are still very much the dominant instrument.

Two of the songs, "Dashboard" and "Missed the Boat," are clearly meant for Clear Channel and VH1, and that they are my two favorites so far aren't the strongest words to write on the album's behalf.

Although "Dashboard," in particular, is very high quality -- a modified fisherman's tale-- built around the sly refrain "would have been could have been worse than you would ever know."

Lyrically, Brock is an Absurdest with a penchant for circular logic and simple language. And this album is full of clever turns such as "like trying to save an ice cube from the cold," and "in the past speaking present tense."

Beyond the words, which are as adroit as ever, the songs have a tendency to blend into each other. A point that gets driven home when two of the more interesting songs on the album, "Fly Trapped in a Jar" and "Spitting Venom," radically change tempos and feels mid song -- a move Modest Mouse has always excelled at.

But that isn't happening enough from one song to another. If anything, it sounds like the band is sticking too much to their nineties formula -- and not employing the tweaks that re-cast the band as a major-label hit maker.

There is a reason few -- if any -- bands are as good in their second decade as they are in their first. Modest Mouse jumped into decade two by trying to be more things to more people, and that ended up giving them a freshness you don't often find from a band ten years in.

Modest Mouse seems stuck on this album. They aren't able to muster the stark rawness they once had on songs like "Cowboy Dan" -- and any songwriter is only going have so many "Dramamines" in him -- yet they don't fully embrace the more accessible option which worked extremely well on their last couple efforts. Making We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank a clear set back from a band with an otherwise excellent catalogue.

This is not a terrible album, and has almost as many good moments as blah ones. It's a portrait of a band at the crossroads: They can either go back to moving forward, somehow do a better job of going all the way back, or disappear into mediocrity -- or all together.

Only time will tell for a band which has already had more time than most.

We Were Dead Before The Ship Sank: C+

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