In the music scene of 2015, Modest Mouse is indeed a stranger. The indie rock band’s latest album is its first in eight long years. Where has the group been and what has taken so long?
Touring is part of the answer to these questions. Starting with a North American circuit in 2008, Modest Mouse has been travelling around the globe, playing festivals and concerts from Queensland to Malaysia. Then there was the exit of Eric Judy, the band’s bassist, co-founder and creative engine.
“Yeah that was a loss, man,” said lead singer Isaac Brock in a March 21 interview with CBS This Morning. “He did a lot of writing in the past.”
There was a shuffling of producers, beginning with Atlanta hip-hop icon Big Boi, and later the former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic. Brock even managed to open his own studio, Ice Cream Party, during the near-decade stretch. Through it all, Modest Mouse chipped away at its sixth major work, “Strangers to Ourselves.”
But more than anything else, Brock — the band’s lynchpin — blames himself for the long wait. “I’m absolutely terrified of making a half-assed record,” he said in a March 10 interview with Rolling Stone. “There were songs that we did 100-or-some takes. Finally, I’d have to be like, ‘Look, we have no idea why we’re doing this again.’”
It makes sense that Brock and Co. feel a bit of pressure coming off of their certified Gold 2007 chart-topper “We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank” — an album that solidified their status as indie greats. But if perfectionism lies at the root of the delay, is perfect what we get on their new album, “Strangers to Ourselves”?
If you are a long-time fan and Modest Mouse expert, you can definitely count on consistency. The record picks up where the band left off back in 2007, though everything sounds a bit darker, a bit more “I’m going to call you out on your bullshit.” If you are a newcomer to these cluttered-not-crowded, schizophrenic symphonies, you are in for a grungy treat. “Strangers to Ourselves” brings a throwback palette of angsty ’90s instrumentation mixed with newer electronic, studio tweaks.
The opening title track is a lazy, levitating ballad. For some reason this seems fitting. It works in slow motion like a trance or a time warp, pleasantly bridging the eight-year gap since the band’s previous record. Brock sings softly and delicately over prolonged cello notes, brushed snare and bubbling ambient noises. The song eases you in, preparing you for a reintroduction to the band’s classic sound: your long-lost friend.
The following track, “Lampshades on Fire,” skillfully replaces this spacey intro with dirty guitar riffs and Brock’s eccentric vocals. It encapsulates the album, perhaps the band, as a whole — a concentrated dose of all sounds Modest Mouse. The song also addresses the record’s ecological theme: “Burn it up, or just chop it down / Ah, this one’s done so where to now?” Consider the startling birds-eye depiction of an Arizona RV camp on the cover and you’ll get the point.
“Shit in Your Cut” and “Pups to Dust” are strewn with moody guitar-picked melodies. The former begins with a novel collection of scratching, clacking percussion over which Brock displays the impressive flexibility of his voice, melding a deep growl with Jack White-esque croons. This sort of vocal layering is well-executed and recurs often in the album. The latter tune is notable for its shifting, time-stretched chorus. Again, themes of humans’ place on the planet arise: “We don’t belong here / We were just born here.”
At times, the band departs from its typical style and ventures into more experimental territory. “Coyotes” is a refreshing respite from the electrically charged songs that precede it. Brock conjures up the softer side of his register again and tosses some female vocals into the melodic chamber. The tune wears the guise of a Beatles track, building to a beautiful, reverberating conclusion.
“God is an Indian and You’re an Asshole” is as good as it sounds: an abrupt acoustic injection of folky, twangy goodness. It’s pretty uncharacteristic of Modest Mouse, but it works. You’ll find yourself humming to this while walking across campus or at your next campfire jam.
At the other end of the spectrum are “Pistol” and “Sugar Boats,” a couple of over-cooked tracks that provide evidence of Brock’s meticulous studio tinkering. In “Pistol,” a drunken mess driven by an epic drum track and bursts of steam, the heavy layering works. But “Sugar Boats” — tuba blasts clashing against distorted guitar licks — sounds like a carnival ride gone wrong.
“I mean it’s definitely not a race,” Brock said in a March 7 interview with National Public Radio. “I’m not trying to put out a record; I’m kind of waiting for a record to show up. There was a lot of time, between the last couple records, where I wasn’t sure it was even an environment I felt like releasing music into.”
Modest Mouse’s members are neither apologists nor conformists. “Strangers to Ourselves” is a noble attempt to re-inject the band’s guitar-driven indie rock into a musical landscape that has, for the most part, moved past this trend. Though at times the music seems a bit redundant and overworked, the band deserves much credit for producing a solid, coherent album after a long hiatus.
It is exciting to see these veterans back in the mix, their old sound becoming a new flavor in a vibrant crowd of rising alternative artists. The sixth studio album is definitely praise-worthy and satisfies pent-up demand. Take a listen and you’ll be psyched for Spring Weekend. We are in for a great show.