The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Modest Mouse: We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank

Written by: Jimmy Hitt, CC2K Staff Writer

Image Last year, a documentary on Modest Mouse’s early career circulated that saw Built to Spill’s Doug Martsch laud the band almost uncontrollably.  This interview represents about 1% of the praise heaped on Isaac Brock and Co. during the Rick Madsen-helmed mini-doc, but it serves to remind us all that, even a good 7 years before “Float On”—the band’s breakthrough mega-hit—Modest Mouse was dropping some iron anchors of respect within the indie rock community.  And this was all before their landmark LP Lonesome Crowded West was released.     

Modest Mouse would never be the same following 1997.  Their sound started to congeal and remain absolutely consistent on the following albums and EPs, so witnessing the major and minor quirks and their evolution on this documentary is definitely worth it if you are a big fan or even a quiet observer.

As I mentioned in a forum post last week, Modest Mouse’s 2000 LP The Moon and Antarctica could very well be the Album of the New Century, but it was Lonesome that set the stage for all of the band’s post-debut work.  Let’s face it, Mice lovers, This Is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About (their “debut”) is good and prophetic, but it isn’t great, and it isn’t something I find myself revisiting often.  When I want to hear echoes of the past, I listen to Lonesome or one of the band’s many collections of one-off tracks, like Building Nothing out of Something.  There’s plenty of territory to explore within the band’s career arc that doesn’t even touch on their work in this century.  It’s all contained within the Up Records era of the band’s catalogue, so it’s easy to demarcate the stylistic transition that occurred. 

In a nutshell, Isaac Brock figured out everything that works for his sound and his songwriting circa 1997.  By Antarctica, his trademark yelps and guitar flourishes acted more as tools and less as distractions.  With 2004’s Good News for People Who Love Bad News and We Were Dead before the Ship Even Sank(what’s with the long-ass titles?), Brock’s work officially solidified into studied, polished pop-rock, easily digestible by a larger audience, but retaining the muck and mire of the band’s earlier, beloved work.    

We Were Dead, which comes out March 20th in the US, marks the first collaboration between Modest Mouse and ex-Smiths uber-guitarist Johnny Marr, something I’ve been dying to hear since the pairing was announced last year.  Much like unpretentious English guitarists like George Harrison before him, or Johnny Greenwood since, Marr’s work exists solely to compliment the song, not to be a cock rock attachment like Eddie Van Halen’s solos or certain Tool songs.  Yet, seeing as though Brock’s own signature guitar work already sits at the forefront of the band’s overall sound, the addition of a 2nd lead strikes me as completely bizarre and unnecessary; but the only way to find out what influence said collaboration might have on an airtight lineup like Modest Mouse is to listen to what emerged.    

I cozied up to We Were Dead recently to see what changes Marr’s addition might hath wrought, and found myself pleasantly surprised to hear that he’s not the albatross some fans have claimed.      

Lead single “Dashboard” is a straightforward rocker largely reminiscent of “Float On”, but also a little bit tougher to pin down.  Is it pop?  Is it rock?  Or is it neither?  I can’t really decide if I like it, but I will say that it’s different and interesting.  Marr’s addition is barely audible under the rest of the band, but if you listen closely—especially during the volatile instrumental portion—you can hear his familiar chug and buzz.  But make no mistake; this is still Brock’s band, now more than ever.     

Listening to songs like “Fly Trapped in a Jar” or “Parting of the Sensory”, one gets the feeling that, despite Marr’s pedigree, he knows when to yield to the genius that is Brock, or when to interject his own creativity.  On this album, his work tends to solidify more chaotic sections that would typically require Brock to lead the way with his own guitar work.  Several such moments of chaos are found on the aforementioned songs, but also on more traditional Modest Mouse tunes like “March into the Sea”.    

Another prominent guest here is The Shins’ James Mercer, who shares vocal duties with Brock on “Florida” and “We’ve Got Everything”, the latter of which is one of my favorite tracks on this LP after a few cursory perusals.  When Brock fails to reach a certain vocal range, Mercer’s falsetto compensates and articulates nicely, allowing the band to accomplish even more diverse songwriting feats.      

So, fans have reason to rejoice at the unlikely pairing of these two indie stalwarts.  Modest Mouse remains intact, Isaac Brock sounds as schizophrenic as ever, and Johnny Marr contributes some of his coolest riffs since “How Soon Is Now?” or “Panic”. We Were Dead sometimes sounds like Good News Part II, it’s also a unique and gratifying addition to Modest Mouse’s catalogue and a concrete example of a successful collaboration.  It isn’t battling Antarctica for Album of the New Century, but all in all, it’s still a Modest Mouse affair, which is never less than sweet.