Modest Mouse is like three smart, attention-deficit-disorder kids running roughshod over a romper room. The Seattle band's music--small cacophonies of melody and turmoil--ricochets off the ceiling, punches holes in walls, then meets square in the middle of the room for a polite race of Hot Wheels. Then the boys get back to scribbling on their faces with permanent markers. Crack. Zing. Sp-tooon! Once in a while, they get sleepy enough to drag out the padded rubber mats for naptime.
The ongoing rumor that the members of this wunderkind trio are all just 18 (which would make the nursery-school metaphor pretty viable), is a big, fat fairytale. Their median age is closer to--ahem--21-and-a-half. Like the draft age getting younger from war to war, Modest Mouse, in fact, aptly represents indie rock's newest trend and scariest truth: The kids are all right, these kids anyway, and getting better all the time. Spiritual nephews of both Lous (Reed and Barlow), or trans-Pacific brothers of Ben Lee, Modest Mouse packs a combination of musical intuition, frenetic confidence, and irate humor that most veteran songwriters can only dream about. The band's newest release, the Lonesome Crowded West, continues the gritty momentum started by the band's 1996 debut This is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About, and builds on the original's unwavering spareness with pumped-up, youth-and-testosterone energy.
The band's tour to promote Lonesome brings them to the hell-pit of the Galaxy Club on Saturday for an all-ages matinee show, and given the band's already extensive tour history, the set should be a good one. The record itself, with all that ducking and clawing and licking at your ears, is surely the rottweiler pup of the band's label, Up Records. While Modest Mouse far outsmarts and outgambles the triteness of other not-quite-adult groups (Eve 6, Silverchair, et al.), your chances of catching one of their tunes on the radio are scarce. Radio doesn't get this good or this sophisticated. From one album cut to the next, each raspy-fluid part occupies its own space, and doesn't always bloat up to fill it, even as it threatens to bleed through the song's boundaries and splatter onto your shoes. Singer-guitarist Isaac Brock's lyrics reveal the same buzzy-turned-wise sensibilities. "We tore one down and erected another there / and the match of the century-absence versus thin air...I'm trying to get my head clear / I push things out through my mouth and get refilled through my ears" (from "Heart Cooks Brain"). This kind of slippery, cynical meandering, in both the words and music, evokes a conflicted stream-of-consciousness of a kid who knows too much, too soon.
Unlike lesser acts young or old, the band never covers its inadequacies with volume. It simply grabs any shortcomings and molds them into something sonically fascinating. No good at harmonies? Modest Mouse has made superimposed, matching vocal lines a personal trademark of their layered sound.
Granted, like most ultra-indie bands, Mouse turns the studio into a territory for a few self-indulgent tangents, yet it never sounds like they expect you to go with them--just another fun side trip to the beer store, and you can come along if you want. On the other hand, they know a good catharsis when they meet one, and the booming rush at the end of "Trailer Trash" proves that even reckless riffing is safe in the arms of a 1, 4, 5 progression.
If this is the future of rock and roll, then we old folks may be in good hands after all.