FOR: "It took a lot of work to be the ass that I am," sings Isaac Brock on Modest Mouse's latest release, The Moon & Antarctica, and quite a few people would agree with him. The work has paid off: After two albums on Calvin Johnson's K Records label, and two more on the Up label, Modest Mouse finally landed themselves the coveted Major-Label Deal. Yet while The Moon & Antarctica is the group's debut for the Epic arm of the Sony empire, it's not likely that Modest Mouse has punched its ticket to arena-rock stardom just yet. After all, even payola spins on Dawson's Creek wouldn't make Modest Mouse accessible to your average gum-smacking Stroke 9 fan.
Fortunately, Modest Mouse's indie-rock cred remains intact despite the leap to a major label. Brock hasn't abandoned his distinctive atonal vocal style, and the band hasn't strayed far from their aggressive power trio sound. But there are some studio bells and whistles on the new disc; six of the tracks feature violin, and even banjo and steel guitar appear on the standout cut "Perfect Disguise."
As always, Brock's clever wordplay remains a Modest Mouse staple, the reason, more than anything else, to buy the disc. As the album title suggests, there's plenty of terrestrial and celestial imagery in his lyrics, which isn't quite as New Age-y as it might seem. For the most part, however, social commentary is the underlying theme, although thankfully it stops short of labelmate Rage Against the Machine's political grandstanding. Brock ultimately reveals that he doesn't have too much faith in his fellow man. In fact, on the final track "What People Are Made Of," he concludes, "they ain't made of nothin' but water and shit." Brock is full of a lot of that too, which is why Modest Mouse is definitely an acquired taste. But there is a reason they are indie rock darlings--after all, thousands of rock critics can't be wrong.
Modest Mouse with The Black Heart Procession and The Shins
AGAINST: Modest Mouse, simply put, is a band that's as irritating as possible without being interesting. Their remarkably similar records are easily digestible, mercilessly unoriginal and endlessly annoying, ideally played in the background while drunk kids discuss Bukowski. Supposedly, bandleader Isaac Brock's lyrics are profound, but, sadly, no such luck. The band's newest record, The Moon & Antarctica, their first for the Epic Records, contains such gems as: "In this life like weeds you're a rock to me," and "It's hard to remember we're alive for the first time/It's hard to remember we're alive for the last time/It's hard to remember to live before you die." I'm touched.
Brock owes royalties to Frank Black, Stephen Malkmus, and pretty much every semi-charismatic front man who's made a killing from the 18-24, good-hair-and-a-credit-card crowd. Thanks to that fact, Modest Mouse is endearingly familiar to its listeners, many whose tastes haven't advanced much since hearing Surfer Rosa in ninth grade. To them, Brock is both the Dave Mathews for the indie-major set and the second coming of Eddie Vedder. And yes, that's every bit as scary as you might imagine.
It may be unfair to judge a band mainly on its fan base, but it's always a bonus for me when I can avoid stupid behavior en masse. Expect Modest Mouse's show in Fort Worth with the equally derivative and successively boring Black Heart Procession to be packed with a noxious mixture of the Dallas dig-me's that attend big Trees shows, and a large percentage of the frat boys in English-major clothing from TCU. In other words, watch out for those white hats.
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