Modest Mouse - We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Modest Mouse We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank Epic

After the success of "Float On," one might have expected Modest Mouse to make a whole album full of replicas, giving up on grim musings and leaving the dark center of the universe for good. Or perhaps the band would dive back into obscurity after its day in the sun. The perennially pessimistic Isaac Brock scoring a breakthrough hit at all would have been unthinkable when the band was out winning its intense cult following, but if it was going to happen, the fact that the hit doubled as perhaps the only lighthearted song he ever wrote was no shocker.

The surprise on We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank is not that Modest Mouse has maintained the user-friendly aesthetic of "Float On" or returned to its dreary bread and butter—it's that the band has done both of these things in one fell swoop. We Were Dead is full of the dread that has characterized Modest Mouse's career, but more often than not, it's packaged in cheery pop ditties—hell, until Brock's voice comes in, "Missed the Boat" could be Sixpence None the Richer. This record is no monumental achievement—the gut says this band only gets one of those, and they used it up with The Moon and Antarctica—but, defying expectation, it's another strong, overlong Modest Mouse record.

This success is no doubt partially thanks to ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, who perplexingly joined the band last year. If anyone knows about brightening a dark disposition, it's Marr. His trademark trebley guitar is all over the place, and it lends to the bouncy atmosphere that characterizes what are, at their core, standard-issue bitter Modest Mouse songs.

Now, let's get this straight: These songs don't sound like early-era Modest Mouse, but this band hasn't sounded that way since the 1990s ended, and anyone who claims the band's first album is their best is out of his or her mind. (The Lonesome Crowded West is an acceptable, if flawed, choice.) But these are unmistakably Modest Mouse songs, natural outgrowths from the last time around.

"March Into the Sea" begins the album with fury to match anything the band has done before. Then lead single "Dashboard" begins with a dance beat and high-register chords reminiscent of last album's "The View," developing into a highly orchestrated rave-up, dressed up in soaring strings, blasting horns and exultant backup vocals. Later, "We've Got Everything" might be the album's most arresting melody, built on intertwining Brock's standard mad-trucker vocals with a wild-hyena guest appearance from the Shins' James Mercer. Epics "Parting of the Sensory" and "Spitting Venom" succeed, although the latter suffers from being buried in the directionless second half.

There's the problem with this album and almost all Modest Mouse albums: They're oversized, fleshed out to the point of obesity by nutritionless songs that are too bland to call junk food—let's refer to them as frozen dinners. This time around the prime offender is the schlocky "Little Motel," but even if the songs around it aren't quite so worthless, piled upon one another they begin to wear test the most generous patience.

To top it off, despite the trudging length, the album ends abruptly with "Invisible," a song that lacks the luster of breathtaking album enders "What People are Made Of" and "The Good Times are Killing Me." Wading through long, meandering stretches on previous albums always led to a big payoff at the end, but this time the band left us hanging.

We Were Dead lacks the mystic, drugged-out beauty of Modest Mouse's peaks, and it suffers from the same flaws as the band always has. Still, this album is a pleasant surprise, if only in light of low expectations. It's certainly worth a listen for longtime fans and those who only know the band from its moment of radio glory. In light of other bands' post-radio crash-and-burns, these rodents are aging pretty well.

Grade: B- Download: "Dashboard," "We've Got Everything" Web: