Drowned in Sound: Modest Mouse: We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank

Drowned in Sound
Modest Mouse: We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank
by Kodi McKinney, DJ at U92
kodimckinney@gmail.com

The platinum club has few members more unlikely than Modest Mouse, a group of indie-rock darlings that broke out on the strength of a music video featuring cardboard sheep and frontman Isaac Brock dressed like Charlie Chaplin. Since that bizarre moment in pop history, the band has spent more than two years crafting We Were Dead before the Ship Even Sank. From the way it sounds, they didn't waste a single second.
Things are kind of a mixed bag initially, with the phenomenal single "Dashboard" sandwiched between the peculiar "March Into the Sea" and "Fire It Up." "Fire" is good, but it unfortunately follows the best song anyone has released so far this year. When "Florida" and the awe-inspiring "Parting of the Sensory" hit, however, the album breaks wide open and never looks back. Several cuts are single-strength, particularly "We've Got Everything," the rumored second song for radio play. Yet it all manages to sound characteristically odd, possibly because Modest Mouse have never sounded quite like anything else out there. Brock's barroom-drunk vocal style is still present, but his control over it has improved enough that it's easily adapted to.
This is not a dance-rock album as "Dashboard" and some hype would indicate, but it still has an uncharacteristic urgency to it. Look no further for the catalyst than new guitarist Johnny Marr. For the traditionalists treading cautiously near this band, observe the similarities between him and Duane Allman on the perfectly-crafted guitar solo in "Little Motel." Marr's work with the Smiths gets respect for a reason, and while he never comes on like a sudden hurricane-strength force with Modest Mouse, therein we find his genius. Gonzo guitar heroics would've been out of place in a band that's already unaccustomed to playing as directly as they do here.
Despite the breathless hype surrounding the band, Modest Mouse can still confound expectations; nowhere is this clearer than the eight-and-a-half minutes long "Spitting Venom." It's difficult to sustain interest over such length, and they mostly pull it off. By the fifth (yes, fifth) and final change in the song's arrangement, the instruments all seem to be sitting on edge; the building of tension is frustratingly subtle, almost indiscernible at first. But instead of exploding, the suspense dissolves into bits of distorted static in the closing seconds. The wasted potential is only noticeable because "Invisible," the most bombastic song here, would have detonated with nuclear force and sent We Were Dead into 5-star territory had it directly followed in the track list.
But even with the minor gripes, We Were Dead is a rare audible feast. It's better than Good News for People Who Love Bad News (the last album and breakout), and only The Moon and Antarctica tops it in their back catalog. At 14 tracks, 62 minutes, and zero filler, Modest Mouse have just crafted the best American release so far this year.
Rating: 4 out of 5