Friday, June 25, 2021

Modest Mouse - The Golden Casket Reviewed

 The Golden Casket Reviewed

You are probably reading this because you are a fan of Modest Mouse, so you will understand the mixed feelings present each time a new release sees the light of day. The Golden Casket was ready to be released right after Strangers To Ourselves according to Isaac Brock, and here it is six years later.

Let's get one thing out of the way before I dig into this latest offering; there will ALWAYS be fans that don't like the latest work from any artist. I'm sure Stephen King hears criticism for every new book he writes because it isn't The Stand or The Dark Tower. Think for a moment why you like any band. You probably heard something that caught your attention and then started digging deeper. The very fact that it caught your attention is because it had elements you liked. You're then comparing everything else ever released by that band to the sound you first loved. Well, after 25 years, you can expect a sound to change. You might love it, or hate it, but most bands will ultimately change. 

With Modest Mouse, the first three albums changed the way I appreciate music. I love all the harmonic contortions, the aggression, the dark humor, and the guitar heroics. I consider Long Drive, Lonesome Crowded West and The Moon & Antarctica the three best albums in the history of music. However, I love everything that Modest Mouse has produced since, even though it has gradually moved away from that sound. I hope that anyone listening to the band after 25 years can appreciate what is being produced now.

Whenever there is a new album, I'm terrified. I don't want to see a torrent of abuse from casual fans and non-musicians to discourage Isaac Brock from continuing to produce music that I love. It must be soul-destroying to work on something for years and to hear it dismissed as weak or irrelevant. I'm happy to say that Modest Mouse never disappoint me, and that The Golden Casket is better than I ever imagined it could be. Let me explain why.

The album has a different sound to previous releases. There are fewer personnel, but the sound is even denser. It will be interesting to see how that translates during a live show. Although I am never depressed by sadness, despair or cynicism in music, there is a warmth and optimism on this album that draws me in. Isaac is clearly happier in his life and he's seeing things differently because of his children and the stability he has found.

Photo by James Joiner

I'll go track-by-track:

Fuck Your Acid Trip
Isaac describes this as fun and a light way to start the album. I have to agree. I heard the album an hour after release last night, sitting in the dark. I'm now on my third listen as I write this. The vocals and the drums relentlessly drive this one. It feels like I'm racing down a dark street on the start of a journey. The vocals fit the music more than in most Modest Mouse songs and electronic sounds are more prominent than on almost anything else I can remember from the band.

We Are Between
As the first song released from the album, this already sounds like an old favorite. It's even been played live on Fallon. The guitar is way more conventional than in the past and the opening chords almost sound like Springsteen, but it soon becomes unmistakable Modest Mouse. The lyrics revisit the themes from The Stars Are Projectors, but they have evolved. Isaac is now happy with his little place in the universe. There is a touch of realism in the lyrics though, so Isaac is still the person we all know. The guitars are immense, but work more as a unit than before. It's pretty funky in places like a Talking Heads vibe. The song has a clear chorus and follows an accessible structure that a lot of new fans might like. I love the way the vocals combine to end the song.

We're Lucky
This feels like a companion piece to the previous track, but it's as gentle as something like Autumn Beds. Isaac sounds relaxed and contemplative. I especially like the vocal delivery. He has a way of pouring out words but somehow arranging them so that it works. It feels inevitable and his cadence just makes everything flow perfectly. There's quite a dense sound from the supporting instruments.

Walking And Running
And the dream is shattered. In stark contrast to the previous song, this one jumps right in and gets you moving. The opening sounds like something that The Prodigy or Earthling-era Bowie might have produced. The vocals and the staccato arrangement are incredible and some of Isaac's unique style starts to shine through. It's King Rat on speed, but without the anger. It feels like a song that's twice the length, but it packs so much into three minutes. Guitars and drums start to go crazy in the second half of the song. It leaves me wanting more.

Wooden Soldiers
This has a Bukowski feel to it, but with guitar instead of banjo. The lyrics might be commenting on his life, his career, or both.

These fuckers wanted guilt, they tore me down and I rebuilt
Much better, oh much better than before

There's a wistful quality to this song, and it wouldn't be out of place as an Ugly Casanova song. There's even a steel guitar segment in the background. The arrangement on this song is almost orchestral.

Transmitting Receiving
We are close to Interpol territory for the opening of this song. The lyrics are a stream of consciousness tumble of images. I can imagine this gripping the audience when it is played live. It's part dream, part observation. Isaac's voice is again wistful and mellow. The steel guitar makes another appearance and it feels like Diggin' Holes. That said, the overall sound is not something I have heard from Modest Mouse before. I like it a lot.

The Sun Hasn't Left
Isaac had the following to say about why he wrote this song:

That one kind of culminated because of the riots going on at the same time as a pandemic and the fucking sky was blacked out basically for parts of the days from forest fires and shit up here in Portland. I had to write that song. For no other reason, as a reminder. I saw a lot of people I knew really, really get pretty fucking bummed out and I felt like I needed to say something encouraging.

Isaac's vocals are on top form again and everything sounds optimistic. It shimmers and shines. There's a few little instrumental touches that feel like Grandaddy, with a clockwork carnival atmosphere.

Lace Your Shoes
If you needed any proof that Isaac's mind is in a different place, this gentle and beautiful song gives you all the evidence that you were looking for. His children get a mention and set the tone for the whole song. Are you missing the guitar heroics and banjo, or are you on board with this new direction? I feel like I am standing in a dark field looking up at the night sky and everything seems enormous.

Never Fuck A Spider On The Fly
This is a rant about media/social media trolls intent on making everything negative. This album is as catchy as any Modest Mouse I have ever heard. Even a rant is something that you can sing along to. There are more vocal harmonies than I am used to as well.

Leave A Light On
I wasn't hooked on this when I first heard it, but I love it now. I can't imagine why it didn't immediately hit me as hard as it does now. The lyrics paint a great picture, but the accessible structure is there again. The instruments bubbling away in the background add extra texture to the sound. It's another positive and hopeful song.

Japanese Trees
Ah, more Interpol at the start of this track; then it transitions into blatant Isaac vocals. I like the urgency and tempo. It all feels very compelling. 

Back To The Middle
I keep mentioning Interpol, but I hear it again in this last song. The guitars are triumphant and uplifting, but it's very much a chorus of guitars rather than Isaac playing alone. This is quite a departure. It feels like the right song on which to end the album.

My first (or third) impressions are all extremely positive. I am very happy with how all this turned out. I'm curious to see how it works live on some of the songs, but it will be great to hear 12 new songs on the next tour. I'm a bit surprised that Ice Cream Party didn't appear on the album and has only had a digital release so far, but I don't think this album has a single weak song. It's a good way to spend 50 minutes and I'll probably be doing that every week for the rest of my life, along with all of the previous releases.

This change in sound could earn the band a lot of new fans if people give it a chance. I doubt it will lose many that have stuck with Modest Mouse for the past 25 years.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Modest Mouse: Top 125 Countdown Analysis


In the past six years, I have made two attempts to rank my favorite Modest Mouse songs. My first ranking, in 2014, only covered the Top 25. A year later, I ranked my Top 100 and gave my thoughts on all of the choices in a 22-part series, complete with videos and lyrics. I was curious to see how my ranking has changed over the last five years, so I made yet another attempt which I have just finished. This last ranking consists of 125 songs and was revealed on Twitter over the course of 125 days.

This post will comment on some of the choices I made this time around, and will analyze how the three sets of rankings have changed over the years. Finally, I'll assign a points system to see how much each individual album has contributed to the overall list. I did not look at any previous rankings while I was compiling the latest set.

As with any list of this nature, it is highly subjective. I am sure many of you love Modest Mouse and would come up with a wildly different list. I would love to know your thoughts on what you would put higher or lower, or any comments at all about this fantastic music. Everyone's individual ranking is correct for them, so please respect each other if you do comment.

Here are my rankings as of now:

This task was far from easy, and you can easily see how my own thoughts have changed over six years. I love every song on the list, whether it is in the Top 10 or number 125.

Biggest Climbers

Let's take a look at the 10 songs that have made the biggest move up my rankings in the last five years.

1 Other People's Lives (Building Nothing Out Of Something) +49 places
2 Lives (The Moon & Antarctica) +47
3 Whenever You Breathe Out, I Breathe In (Building Nothing Out Of Something) +38
4 Sugar Boats (Strangers To Ourselves) +29
5 Lampshades On Fire (Strangers To Ourselves) +27
5 Ohio (This Is A Long Drive) +27
7 Styrofoam Boots/It's All Nice On Ice, Alright (The Lonesome Crowded West) +26
8 King Rat (No One's First And You're Next) +23
8 One Chance (Good News For People Who Love Bad News) +23
10 Night On The Sun (Night On The Sun) +22
10 People As Places As People (We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank) +22

I think I have more appreciation for Building Nothing Out Of Something and the last two tracks are two of my three biggest movers up the rankings. Lives is a song I connect with more than in the past because of its reflective lyrics. The two representatives from Strangers To Ourselves are played at almost every show and that has increased my enjoyment of those songs considerably. I think that explains my additional love for Night On The Sun as it sounds so spectacular live. 

There are a few honorable mentions:
Truckers Atlas moves into my Top 10. I've heard some great live versions and love the whole journey that the song takes me through. The Stars Are Projectors has really clicked with me lately and Cowboy Dan just blows me away every time I hear it played at a concert. It seems that there are so many ways to play that song.

Biggest Fallers

I still love all of these songs of course. If I include more songs and some climb, there have to be some that are ranked lower.

1 A Life Of Artic Sounds (Building Nothing Out Of Something) -38
2 Ansel (Strangers To Ourselves) -34
2 The Waydown (The Fruit That Ate Itself) -34
4 Guilty Cocker Spaniels (No One's First And You're Next -32
5 Custom Concern (This Is A Long Drive) -31
6 Shit In Your Cut (Strangers To Ourselves) -30
7 A Manic Depressive Named Laughing Boy (This Is A Long Drive) -28
8 Might (This Is A Long Drive) -25
9 Shit Luck (The Lonesome Crowded West) -24
10 The Whale Song (No One's First And You're Next) -22

How Do The Albums Rank?

If I assign a basic points system of 125 points for the top song, down to 1 point for song 125, it produces the following ranking:

In my own head, my ranking is The Lonesome Crowded West as the clear number one with This Is A Long Drive and The Moon & Antarctica in a close battle for second. Good News would also be above We Were Dead. If I apply some kind of weighting, The Lonesome Crowded West has 6 songs in the Top 10 and would easily come out on top.

If I divide the above totals by the number of songs each album has on the list to get an average per song, we get this:

I've rambled on enough with this analysis. I hope that you enjoyed my latest countdown. Maybe I'll do another when we get a new album.

I would be very interested to know your thoughts on Modest Mouse. What songs would you rank much higher or much lower? Which is your favorite album release? Have your opinions changed a lot since you first got into the band?

Thanks for reading. Keep enjoying this amazing music.

Friday, May 22, 2020

The Fall: Live At The Witch Trials Album Review

The Fall's first album release was Live At The Witch Trials. It was recorded in a single day in December 1978, and was mixed the following day. When it was released three months later, Mark E. Smith was the only original member of the band remaining.

The opening track is Frightened, which Smith wrote when he was 16. It's about taking speed and feeling frightened. One thing that strikes me about this song is how together everything is. The drums, guitar, bass and keyboards are all an important part of the song. There's a wall of sound in the chorus that Sonic Youth would be proud of. Smith's vocals sound confident and assured.

Crap Rap 2/Like To Blow sounds more like the type of song you would use to open an album. It even includes the trademark introduction often used at live shows. It really grabs my attention when I hear it. Smith always said that The Fall were at their best live, so I wonder if this quick approach to recording was in part to achieve that sound on record? More drug references in this song. Rebellious Jukebox sounds like another comment on the state of the music industry with the band being the jukebox in the title (playing what they like instead of the accepted norm). Listening to The Fall feels like entering another world and I can feel that on this album.

No Xmas For John Quays is one of my favorite songs on the album because of the tempo and vocal delivery. It's relentless and the repetitive beat is hard to escape. The live version on Totale's Turns is arguably even better. I remember annoying people at work with this when I first started working. Listening to this album, anyone would think that The Fall spent all their time playing music or hanging out in pubs.

Mother-Sister! doesn't seem to be about much, but there's an interesting take from a quote by Martin Bramah on The Annotated Fall site. It suggests that his family referred to his mother as his sister so they wouldn't have to explain the absence of his father. I like the guitar tone in this one and the ranting delivery of the lyrics. Side 1 ends with Industrial Estate, which is another reminder that you are in The Fall's world. Can you imagine The Beatles singing this? It's almost poppy with the bouncy delivery, but the lyrics and scratchy guitar keep it gritty.

Side 2 kicks off with Underground Medecin, which seems upbeat and hopeful in the context of this album:

I found a reason not to die
A reason for the ride
The spark inside

There are a variety of musical styles on the album, with the most dominant being short rants or measured dark narratives. Two Steps Back falls into the latter category and it's another song full of drug references. I particularly like the way that the band is given time to flesh out the song with a lot of exploratory instrumentals. It's a good contrast to the shorter rants. A lot of Smith's lyrics make me laugh, but I'm generally more into the style of music and the way the lyrics are delivered than the actual meaning of the songs. This is true when I listen to any band.

Live At The Witch Trials brings things to an abrupt halt and is more prose than song. It's a typical Smith statement which is half sarcastic and half serious. It leads into the complete rant which is Futures And Pasts. I'm not sure whether it is about one of Smith's experiences, or just life in general, but I love the tempo. Music Scene was a live favorite that Smith once introduced as "this one lasts about three hours." Being a huge Modest Mouse fan, this reminds me somewhat of Truckers Atlas in that it goes on and on with the band just improvising all the way. I like that the riff from Repetition is thrown in there and everyone just seems to be having a blast.

Live At The Witch Trials contains an interesting mix and showed that The Fall were a band with a lot more depth than most of their contemporaries. If you look back to 1979, it was a weird time. Pink Floyd had a Christmas No. 1, Joy Division released Unknown Pleasures, and The Fall released their first two studio albums. This was an exciting debut and I wish I could go back to 1978 and hear these songs live.

Bass – Marc Riley
Drums – Karl Burns
Electric Piano – Yvonne Pawlett
Guitar – Martin Bramah
Vocals – Mark E. Smith

77 - Early Years - 79 review

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Friday, May 15, 2020

The Fall: 77 - Early Years - 79 Album Review

My Fall collection consists of 81 releases on vinyl or CD, including a few on both formats. I've decided to write a series of reviews explaining why I love some of these albums.

This is the first band I saw play live and I immediately loved the concert experience. All I could think about was when I would be able to go to another concert. I had missed so many opportunities to see the bands I liked.

The first studio album was Live At The Witch Trials, released in March 1979. However, The Fall were touring for almost two years before that release. A compilation of singles and demos covering those two years was eventually released in 1981, and that's where I am going to start.

I've often thought that the first album you hear by a band is the one that you end up rating higher than everything else because it introduces their sound to your ears. For me, the first Fall album that I bought was Grotesque. I think, for that reason, I somehow missed the significance of this Early Fall compilation. It was released in 1981, so The Fall already had three studio albums and a live album to their name by the time I bought this compilation of singles and a demo. After reading about the formation of the band and looking at the songs they played at the early shows, this release now seems much more important than it did at the time. I almost feel like I am discovering the music for the first time. I eventually added most of the singles that make up this album to my collection, but I love hearing it as a coherent piece. I feel like I'm closer to the songs than I ever was.

Repetition was probably played live more than any other song during those formative years. It's like a statement of intent for what was to come. When I listen to those lyrics, it describes The Fall. I've since learned that Martin Bramah was going to be the vocalist, but Mark E Smith seized that role because his guitar-playing wasn't that good at the time? Like most of my favorite vocalists, Smith can't really sing. However, he's extremely effective and I've learned to love his unique delivery-ah. I can understand why a lot of people would hate the music; it's raw; it's unconventional; it's not designed to be smooth or pleasant. Repetition is a raw song, as many of the songs on this album are. But this sounds like The Fall already, and it has Smith's wry humor in the lyrics. Repetition is a vital part of The Fall's sound.

Bingo Master's Breakout and Psycho Mafia are arguably an easier listen. Both are faster and a lot more bouncy than the plodding delivery of Repetition. This sound is closer to punk than the album's opener. One thing that jumps out at me listening to this is the vast amount of information in the lyrics and it feels like an assault.

Various Times offers something completely different. This is a song that narrates a story and it grabs me and draws me in. The band gets to showcase its skills here, with the heavy bass line and the drums playing an important part. It feels like it carries more weight than the two previous songs. Over the years, this structure appears regularly. This song wouldn't feel too out of place on Hex Enduction Hour. I don't remember anything else sounding like this at the time. It's The New Thing ends Side 1 and it's another bouncy track. As with many Fall songs, it talks about the music business. Smith was obsessed with singing about the industry, journalists and how inept most other bands were at the time.

I remember sitting around for hours with friends trying to figure out some of the lyrics in Rowche Rumble from the Totale's Turns version. It wasn't easy with no Internet and nothing to use as a resource. It took ages before we decided on "beer and speed is okay, but wanting full use of your body isn't." One of us ended up making a tape which just repeated that song about 10 times. It was a strange world full of Swiss gnomes, and we were hooked. Incidentally, I highly recommend The Annotated Fall website if you are curious about the lyrics and their possible origins.

In My Area introduces us to a dwarf and a doppelganger. Many of Smith's lyrics were taken from literary works he had read or films that he had seen. Other influences came from his own surroundings. Dice Man was based on Luke Rhinehart's novel and it's about having the ability to change, as The Fall did with their musical style on a regular basis.

According to Smith, Psykick Dance Hall No.2 was written about a building in his area which used to be a dancehall and ended up hosting meetings for old psychic women. I particularly like these lyrics which are somewhat prophetic:

When I'm dead and gone
My vibrations will live on
In vibes not vinyl through the years
People will dance to my waves

The Fall took influences musically from Can and The Velvet Underground, among others. A lot of their songs from this period feature a scratchy, tinny guitar sound. The lyrics often favor the stream of consciousness method that Don Glen Vliet (Captain Beefheart) was so fond of.

2nd Dark Age is a rant about the general state of things and namechecks ABBA. There's a lot going in in this song lyrically, despite its short running time. Fiery Jack has a great intro and uses the repetitive style described in the album's first song. It describes a particular type of character that Smith saw in people around him; hard men with hard lives who coped with their existence by drinking and using drugs.

This collection of songs seems heavily focused on life in Smith's town. The band's sound is raw and gritty, and just starting to form some of the sounds that I grew to love over the years. When I listen to Early Years, I am magically transformed to the time when I was just starting to form my own opinions about the music I liked, rather than go along with the accepted sounds delivered by what was played on the radio and TV. I realized that some of the rock albums I owned were pretty uninteresting compared to post punk and The Fall. My taste started to change.

I fully accept that The Fall are an acquired taste. Smith's voice clearly annoys a lot of people. The lyrics might appear like total nonsense if you didn't grow up in England or haven't explored some of the things referenced in the songs. But I find a lot of this funny in a dark way, and I love the layers of sound. Musicians often seem to be doing their own thing, but it somehow comes together. This happens to an even greater extent when we get to albums just a couple of years later, but I'll cover that another day.

Early Years is a fascinating glimpse into the origin of a great band. I enjoy visiting this formative era and I'm looking forward to continuing the journey. This isn't where I would begin if I were introducing someone to The Fall, but I would definitely suggest checking it out when they are familiar with the band. It's a rewarding listen.

Here's Rowche Rumble:

Bass – Marc Riley (tracks: Side A), Stephen Hanley (tracks: Side B), Tony Friel (tracks: Side A)
Drums – Karl Burns (tracks: Side A), Mike Leigh (tracks: Side B)
Guitar – Craig Scanlon (tracks: Side B), Martin Bramah (tracks: Side A)
Guitar, Keyboards – Marc Riley (tracks: Side B)
Keyboards – Mark E. Smith (tracks: Side B), Una Baines (tracks: Side A), Yvonne Pawlett

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Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Modest Mouse/Isaac Brock Career Overview

Modest Mouse started making music around 25 years ago and their sound has evolved in all kinds of ways since that beginning. I remember how my own introduction to the band found me loving The Moon & Antarctica and The Lonesome Crowded West, but I needed more time to fall in love with debut album This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About. The reason was that the production was so raw and I found it jarring compared to some of the things I listened to on a regular basis. I now wonder how I would attempt to introduce someone with no previous exposure to the band to this wonderful music.

Some will love the new sound because the band often performs with eight or nine members on stage and the layers of sound are dense and rewarding; others will scream that the old stuff is the best. Yet another type of fan will have discovered the band through Float On and insist that Good News For People Who Love Bad News was the highlight. In my case, I love it all. If you picked the least great Modest Mouse album, I would still choose it over any album by any other band.

In order to reach the level of appreciation that I feel for Isaac Brock's music, you'll need to do a couple of things:

The first thing is to embrace all the rough edges. If you need your vocals to sound like Jeff Buckley, look elsewhere. Isaac can sing calmly and in tune, but he's just as likely to scream something at you with the slight lisp that still remains. He delivers his lyrics like he means them and sometimes SHOUTS for no apparent reason. This is all part of the charm if you have managed to embrace the sound of his vocal delivery. The guitar sound is also a bit unusual because of all the harmonic bending. That may be the most definitive thing in the band's sound and I love it.

The other thing is repeat listens. Most music is full of simple structures with a chorus and hooks that are easy to recognize. You can hear those songs and feel like you know them on the first listen, but Modest Mouse has layers. There's a lot going on underneath. Jeremiah Green's drumming and the multitude of supporting musicians are all part of the magic. You can't fully love the music until you know it well enough to know what is coming next. That takes a bit of work, but the reward can be enormous. It was for me and I will never be the same.

For this particular project, I decided to make a playlist to showcase Isaac's music. I say it in those terms because I have included two Ugly Casanova tracks. I set myself the following rules:

  • An unreleased song to demonstrate the quality of music that doesn't even guarantee a release
  • Two tracks from each Modest Mouse album (including compilations)
  • One track from each Modest Mouse EP
  • Two songs from Ugly Casanova
  • The latest single

The songs are mostly in the order in which they were written. I did it that way so that you can hear the evolution of the sound.

Another thing to note is that I didn't simply choose my outright favorite songs. Some songs were chosen to illustrate a particular style or sound, or perhaps because of the lyrical insight. Float On was a breakthrough for the band and gave them a new level of exposure and popularity, so it is in for that reason. I wanted some banjo songs and that's why they are in.

Anyway, I hope that you like what I have done and that you get something from it. That's especially true if you are new to the band. For those who are already fans, what songs would you have chosen for the purpose of showcasing the band for new listeners?

Click for a playlist of the 25 songs.

The videos were chosen because of their sound quality. If you want live versions or other versions, there are plenty on YouTube or in my other playlists.

For the record, here are the 25 songs I chose to introduce newcomers to Isaac Brock's music. Let me know yours or what you think about my choices.

Needle Point
Birds vs. Worms
From Point A To Point B
Talking Shit About A Pretty Sunset
Edit The Sad Parts
The Waydown
Heart Cooks Brain
Cowboy Dan
Never Ending Math Equation
You're The Good Things
The Stars Are Projectors
Diggin' Holes
Night On The Sun
Float On
Parting Of The Sensory
Spitting Venom
Here's To Now
King Rat
Lampshades On Fire
The Ground Walks With Time In A Box
Ice Cream Party

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Monday, April 6, 2020

Good news for people who like anniversary reviews

On April 6th, 2004, Modest Mouse released Good News For People Who Love Bad News. It was a commercial success, selling more than 1.5 million copies in the first two years. That success was largely due to the popularity of the single, Float On, which made a lot of people aware of the band for the first time.

As an obsessed fan, I consider the first three albums the best albums of all time (This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About, The Lonesome Crowded West and The Moon & Antarctica). So when I say that Good News isn't quite as enjoyable as what came before, it's still more important to me than my favorites by other bands. It's a wonderful collection of songs.

Jeremiah Green did not appear on the album due to health reasons and I missed his presence. However, that's not to say that Benjamin Weikel (The Helio Sequence) did anything wrong; I just missed the genius of Green's work.

It's easy to make an argument for this being the best Modest Mouse album, especially if you prefer production and smoothness over the raw and edgy sound of the first two albums. The songs generally flow together well and sound lush compared to the more experimental earlier efforts, although The Moon & Antarctica started that transition.

So why is Good News such a great listen?

There are 17 songs (17 vinyl, 16 CD), but the overall album length is just under 52 minutes. That's quite a bit shorter than what came before, but still 52 minutes of some of the best music you will ever hear. Let's take a closer look:

Horn Intro is just that. It's a fanfare announcing the album and lasts about 10 seconds. It leads into The World At Large, which sets the tone for Side A of the record. It oozes atmosphere and transports you to another place. Isaac Brock's vocals are contemplative and controlled and he's setting us up for the start of this odyssey. It really feels like a beginning. Float On was written with the intention of being something positive and upbeat. It's as if Brock was saying he knew everything was shit, but sometimes things go your way. Eric Judy's bass helps make the song catchy and danceable, but Brock starts to ramp up the vocals and sounds more certain of what he is saying. He's starting to answer the questions he posed in the previous song. Ocean Breathes Salty completes the side and again seems to join seamlessly with the previous two songs. This is sadder and asks some of the big questions about life and death. There is a dreamy quality to the main riff, and some more good bass lines from Judy.

Side B again opens with a transitional track, Dig Your Grave, lasting just 13 seconds. I'm not sure why it is there. If the opening side was calming, then this side is much more chaotic. Bury Me With It contains the album's title in the lyrics and is one of my favorites on the album. It's essentially about not caring too much about living if the important little things in life are taken away. The lyrics are great and say a lot in a short time; 'I just don't need none of that Mad Max bullshit' conjures up a world of images for me as someone who has seen the movies. Brock gleefully delivers these lyrics and my mood changes as a result.

Dance Hall is a polarizing song. Brock is frantically ranting at us in this song as if his life depended on it. There is calm Isaac and demonically possessed Isaac and you either embrace that or it's a deal breaker. I fully embrace it and think it's hilarious when bad Isaac surfaces. I'm usually grinning when he's ranting like a madman. So this song is a wild ride for me. It gets bonus points for including the 'committin' crimes runnin' down the alley' lyric from Ugly Casanova's Ice On The Sheets, but blink and you'll miss it. Weikel is at his best on this and the previous song.

Bukowski is a favorite for many fans. It reminds me of Henry Mancini's Pink Panther theme because of the cadence. Brock considers whether he would want to be like Charles Bukowski, even though it would alienate a lot of people. He also talks about God and questions who would want to be such a control freak. The structure of this song is different to everything up to this point with the banjo replacing the guitar, as Modest Mouse tends to do for two or three songs in every live show. The side ends with more banjo and a muddled and dirty song, This Devil's Workday. There's a definite Tom Waits vibe, but this song grows on you if you give it a few listens and stay open to the possibility. The horns sound like an elephant on this one.

Incidentally, Newbury Records released a cool vinyl exclusive six years ago. I managed to pick one up and it looks like this:

Side C instantly changes pace with The View, which has a rhythm section that Talking Heads would be proud of. Again, Brock ponders life itself and makes a few more observations. Satin In A Coffin sees the banjo return, and is a vitriolic rant. I like bad Isaac because it feels authentic. This song has grown on me so much over the years to the point where it's a highlight. I like the plodding structure and the menace of the delivery. Interlude (Milo) is a minute of Judy playing organ with his baby son's voice in the background, It's a sweet song and a change of pace. The closer on Side C is the beautiful Blame It On The Tetons, in which Brock delivers an incredibly understated vocal that is effective because it is so different. The song itself also has a startling change of pace in the middle. It prepares us for the final part of the journey.

Side D opens with what I think of as the trademark Modest Mouse sound on Black Cadillacs. I love the lyric 'we named our children after towns that we'd never been to' and the song comes across as weird because of the chord progression. It's over all too soon, but One Chance makes up for that. It sounds like Brock feels trapped in a relationship and anxious for it to stay on track. The final song on the CD version has been used fairly often to close shows and it feels like a proper ending. The Good Times Are Killing Me feels like the end of the journey as Brock observes that all the drug and alcohol abuse isn't doing him any favors. It's sloppy, but draws you in like a voyeur watching someone hopefully avoid a train wreck. Thankfully, it looks like that was successfully avoided. The final song on the record is I've Got It All, (Most). This actually works well with the previous song and suggests that some of the questions have been answered. It also appears on the No One's First And You're Next EP.

So there you have it. This still feels like a Modest Mouse album. It's undeniably more polished than the releases from the previous decade, but it's still a great album. It's hard to believe that 16 years have passed since this surfaced. Consider giving it a birthday spin.

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Saturday, November 18, 2017

Lonesome Crowded West - 20th Anniversary Review

I thought about writing this review a few weeks ago, but I wasn't sure there was any point. Modest Mouse fans already know they at least like the album, and most fans will consider it the best or close to the best thing the band has ever released. For me, it's definitely my favorite Modest Mouse album, making it my favorite album of all time by default. But back to my original thought; why am I even writing this?

Is it for you, for me, for the band? Do I hope to convince you of its utter brilliance? Am I hoping that these words will inspire someone to check out the album who otherwise would not?

In the end, I'm writing it because I recently found that something in my head was dictating the words while I was trying to sleep. If I don't do this, it will haunt me.

If you are like me, some of your current favorite music did not instantly grab you the first time you heard it. Lonesome Crowded West falls into that category for me. However, investing time in several complete listens might just unlock the 'thing' that makes this the best album ever released. That's asking a lot in an age when most people are looking for instant gratification. They aren't looking for a homework assignment. Here's why you might consider it.

Lonesome Crowded West is like art. It's a Dali painting or a David Lynch movie in musical form. This album has layers and texture! It's too vast to assimilate with a casual single listen. There's just too much going on underneath. I might compare it to the difference between checkers and chess. Until you can hold the entire pattern of each song in your head, and absolutely know what is coming next, you can't fully appreciate this music.

Are you bored yet? Here's another image.

I bought Lonesome Crowded West, played it, and decided it was very good. Not as good as The Moon and Antarctica, but very good. It was about ten years later that it climbed to the very top of my Modest Mouse favorites and longer still before it became my favorite music by anyone. I want to visit the places on the album cover and learn to play all the songs. This review is yet another way I can hope to get a little closer to the music.

Let's take a look at the actual songs to see what all the fuss is about:

The album opens with an almost baffling assault on the senses. Teeth Like God's Shoeshine is my favorite track by anyone. The opening few seconds fling you into utter chaos. It's a fast, spiraling, guitar-driven beginning which soon features Isaac Brock's shouted vocals. "From the top of the ocean to the bottom of the sky." He's taking you on a journey and you have no control. The first 30 seconds pack in so much action before switching gears into the next phase (layers upon layers). After 90 seconds, Brock lets us catch our breath as the tempo shifts again. You'll notice as you work your way through this album that the lyrics are incredible. This is true of all Modest Mouse albums. The intelligence is always present. Who is the man with teeth like God's shoeshine? He sounds like some kind of salesman. The song forecasts the demise of the mall among other things. The flow of this music is hypnotic, urgent, essential, repetitive and reflective, all at the same time. Just when you think it's all over, Brock springs into action and gives us another minute of fiery guitar. Oh my goddamn! This song inspired me to make a fan video, so I am familiar with every tiny little detail. Here's the video if you are interested.

One song down, 15 to go. The second track would be my personal choice as Modest Mouse's anthem. Heart Cooks Brain is a very different beast and it quietly flows rather than assaulting you. The opening sounds sinister, as if Brock is taking you down a secret path in the woods. "On the way to God don't know, my brain's the burger and my heart's the coal." I love the line "I push things out through my mouth, I get refilled through my ears." And of course, the bitter buffalo. The lyrics almost magically flow together as if the words have only ever been used in this song. The whole time, guitar is woven into the sound, giving that extra texture. Brock is very restrained in his delivery, but the song is extremely potent and one of the band's best. The sudden ending is perfect.

Convenient Parking is one of those repetitive songs that bores its way into your brain and never really leaves. The style matches the subject matter. We're stuck in cars for way too long every week and it does get repetitive. Our lives can seem futile if we allow it. We are creatures of habit and we put up with a lot in order to earn the money that allows us to exist.

Have you ever played the game of judging an album by the quality of the first three tracks? I do that all the time. Hard to beat the three that start Lonesome Crowded West.

The album sounds terrific on vinyl and that's the format I am using for this review. That way, there's an extra track. Baby Blue Sedan shows Brock in mellow and reflective mood. "A nice heart and a white suit and a baby blue sedan, and I am doing the best that I can." This song would work well as the first part of an encore. It fits well at the end of side one. It's another song with perfect flow.

Side two opens with Jesus Christ Was An Only Child. You'll have noticed that a lot of Modest Mouse songs mention God in some way, but is clear that Brock isn't a fan or a believer. This song has a repetitive delivery over a prominent fiddle. "I know now what I knew then, but I didn't know then what I know now." And the fiddle continues weaving throughout the song. The innocent song runs its course and then a monster...

Doin' the Cockroach has claims as the best song on the album. I have it a hair behind Teeth Like God's Shoeshine. As the lyrics at the top of this post brilliantly proclaim, "I was in heaven, I was in hell, believe in neither but fear them as well." I wonder how many people feel the same way? This song is flat out exciting to me. The whole delivery is filled with adrenaline and I find it impossible to keep myself from shouting along. The lyrics contain a lot of insight, but it's the guitar-driven delivery which elevates the song to the elite tier of Modest Mouse songs. Brock shouts his way through a lot of the lyrics. As I once read somewhere, he sings like he's being chased by wasps. That's definitely true in Cockroach. See if you agree.

How do you follow that? Luckily, side two contains three superb songs that all have strong claims for inclusion in a Modest Mouse Top 10. Cowboy Dan is another with an almost sinister guitar line. Brock transitions from shouting for all he is worth to more reflective phases of the song. He's only partially possessed in this one. As I mentioned at the outset, it's hard to take everything in on the first listen. Cowboy Dan grows into something memorable after a few repeat listens. You end up craving that guitar line. "He drove the desert, fired his rifle in the sky and says, 'God, if I have to die, you will have to die'." I love the part where Brock slows it all down and gives us a few lines of wisdom:

Standing in the tall grass thinking nothing
You know we need oxygen to breathe oxygen to breathe

Every time you think you're walking you're just moving the ground
Every time you think you're talking you're just moving your mouth
Every time you're looking you're just looking down

Side two is just as incredible as side one because next up is Trailer Trash. The song eases its way in. "Eating snowflakes with plastic forks." "Short love with a long divorce." I like honesty in songs and in people in general. Trailer Trash seems to be a brutally honest assessment of Brock's early life. It builds into one of the more traditional song structures, so it is probably one of the easiest to absorb on the first listen. The last two minutes focus on the music and it's really fleshed out compared to the simple opening verses. I'm tempted to say it's a microcosm of Modest Mouse's career so far, but that sounds pretentious even to me.

Side three is a road trip. All four songs are about driving or some kind of travel. Out Of Gas meanders along, occasionally throwing out brilliant lyrics such as "opinions were like kittens we were giving them away." The simple theme and structure continues in Long Distance Drunk, which is a link to the shortest and longest songs on the album. Shit Luck is an absolute rant and is on the attack from the very first line. "This plane is definitely crashing." It shakes you out of the false sense of security of the previous track. Guitars are furiously spiraling away and the relentless drumming helps drive the song. It's quite amusing in its way. The final track on side three is a shade under 11 minutes long. Truckers Atlas is another grower. It seeps into your subconscious and the more you listen, the more you hear. It's repetitive, but always interesting. I particularly enjoy Green's drumming and the guitar layers that fill the song. If you're interested in how these songs developed, I give Pitchfork's documentary on the album my highest recommendation.

Only one more side and this 78-minute epic is over. Side four begins with the gentle Polar Opposites. It's hard to find much to say about this song. It's one of those that has perfect structure. Every instrument, every note, is just where it should be.

Bankrupt On Selling has to be the rawest song on the album. Honest lyrics usually do sound raw.

"Well, I'll go to college and I'll learn some big words
And I'll talk real loud, goddamn right I'll be heard
You'll remember the guy who said all those big words
He must have learned in college"

If you own the CD version, Lounge (Closing Time) is track four. On the vinyl, it seems to work better. For some strange reason, I never hear people talk about this song. I have no idea why. The scratchy guitar opens the way for Brock to give us a lot of information in the first minute of the song. The scene is set and the pattern repeats.

"I've got a girlfriend out of the city
I know I like her, I think she is pretty"

The thing that makes this song so great is the way the band starts rocking out at around the 3-minute mark. This segment is up there with anything the band has ever done. Maybe most people don't like all-out guitar rants as much as I do? Of course, Brock slows everything down again. It's hard to remember that the song is seven minutes long and has several phases. Those phases within each song are one of the reasons I love Modest Mouse. There's always something different before very long.

The final song is almost exactly the same length as the first. Styrofoam Boots/It's All Nice On Ice, Alright mentions religion. It has several phases. It has repetitive sequences. The tempo shifts from reflective to exciting. The second part of the song is incredible live. In short, it's a typical Modest Mouse song.

"I'm in heaven trying to figure out which stack
They're going to stuff us atheists into when Peter and his monkey laugh
And I laugh with them
I'm not sure what at."

"God takes care of himself and you of you."

Lonesome Crowded West is one of several brilliant Modest Mouse albums. It was released on November 18, 1997. All of the band's releases are worth your time. If you ever heard the album and dismissed it or forgot about it, I urge you to give it a few more listens. I love music and I think discovering the secrets this album holds was one of the most rewarding things I have ever done.

Join me in saying happy 20th anniversary to a superb musical journey.

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