Sunday, March 8, 2015

Modest Mouse - Strangers to Ourselves (First Impressions)

Modest Mouse - Strangers to Ourselves
Tracks 15, Duration 57 minutes

1. Strangers to Ourselves
2. Lampshades On Fire
3. Shit in Your Cut
4. Pistol (A. Cunanan, Miami, FL. 1996)
5. Ansel
6. The Ground Walks, with Time in a Box
7. Coyotes
8. Pups to Dust
9. Sugar Boats
10. Wicked Campaign
11. Be Brave
12. God is an Indian and You're an Asshole
13. The Tortoise and the Tourist
14. The Best Room
15. Of Course We Know

I love music. Really love it. Some of the best moments of my life have taken place at concerts. I grew up liking glam rock, before graduating to artists with more depth. My favorite bands have changed over the years, although many of my absolute favorites have been in my collection for as long as 40 years.

David Bowie was my favorite artist from 1974 to 1978, before Pink Floyd took over. Then I discovered alternative music and The Fall took over the top spot in 1980. I've seen them live more than 30 times. Their 14-year reign was finally broken when I discovered Throwing Muses (years after I should have). The first five Pixies albums eventually captured my attention and they usurped the Muses, before Sonic Youth rose to the top in 2000. Modest Mouse graduated from a place in the middle of my Top 10 to my favorite band in the summer of 2014. I played their albums to death for about three months in preparation for Toronto's August 1 concert and I'm having trouble playing anything else at the moment.

I didn't discover Modest Mouse until around 2005, when I moved to North America. Although I was able to anticipate the release of We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank, this is the first time I have looked forward to a Modest Mouse album while they were my Number 1 band. I've been listening to whatever live versions of the songs I could, as well as the few official tracks which were made available early. Now I actually have my hands on all 15 tracks and I feel compelled to share my thoughts.

Bear in mind though that I think it's impossible to fully appreciate any album on one or two listens. Until you know a song well enough to know what's coming from beginning to end, any initial impression is something that can easily and will most likely change.

That said, what do I think of Strangers to Ourselves?

The title track was completely new to me as of this morning. It eases in slowly, with Brock's vocals thoughtful and subdued. It's a reflective song which introduces us to the album. Unlike Brock's more abrasive vocals, Strangers to Ourselves isn't a song that a non-fan might hate. More than anything, it leaves me anticipating the inevitable explosion of energy that is surely present on the album as a whole.

Lampshades On Fire has been on my playlist since it surfaced late last year. I love the rhythm and the way that the seemingly chaotic structure seems to flow together. It's actually quite catchy! I could imagine casual listeners wanting to hear more from the band after being exposed to it.

"We'll kill you off and then make a clone
Yeah, we got spines, yeah, we have bones
This is how it's always gone
And this is how it's going to go"

Shit in Your Cut contains a lot of heavy bass. I'm extremely familiar with the song after seeing it performed at Echo Beach at the concert and hearing various live versions on YouTube. Brock's vocals are measured, but forceful. Unlike the live renditions, the album version reveals more layers of sound. The drums in particular are more prominent, and the swirling guitar fits perfectly. The backing vocals work well, and are less jarring than on songs like Florida from the last album. I could imagine this song becoming a favorite of mine.

"I guess we'll ride this winter out"

I'm really loving the extra depth on the studio versions so far.

Pistol (A. Cunanan, Miami, FL. 1996) begins with a disco drum intro (gulp) and it makes me think of Blondie's Tide is High. But Brock's vocals are more of a growl on this track and it carries plenty of weight. That said, this is easily the weakest track so far.

Ansel begins with Brock saying "Here we go" and it feels like the beginning of a musical journey. That matches the theme of the song, which is about a trip to New Mexico during which a brother is lost. I hope it wasn't a real event. The structure feels like vintage Modest Mouse.

Edit: Thanks to @ravenval for doing my research for me via
The song is inspired by the death of Isaac Brock’s brother, who died in an accident on a mountain in the early 2000s. While Isaac’s brother was not actually named Ansel, the track still marks a rare, personal moment from the songwriter, who typically obscures his feelings with copious amounts of metaphor.

"The last time that you ever see another soul
No, you never get to know
No, you don't know"

The Ground Walks, with Time in a Box is a sprawling jumble of layers with a funky beat reminiscent of Talking Heads. The songs are more polished than on early Modest Mouse albums, but Brock's vocals still have that unmistakable feel. I can see how fans might be divided by this album if they are hoping for another Lonesome Crowded West. Make no mistake, this is a BIG sound. The track is dense with all kinds of percussion, but it holds together well.

"Our predecessor left this box
and something's crawling around
I think it really wants out"

Coyotes is raw and beautiful, with Brock in reflective mode again. The song features layers of backing vocals and stark acoustic guitar. There's a lot to like about this structure, but it isn't typical Modest Mouse. I must have heard it a hundred times over the past few weeks and it's still growing on me.

Pups to Dust begins like a trail song, but then emerges as the Modest Mouse sound that we know and love. More backing vocals on this one. There's a lot going on, so it's hard to take in everything on just a couple of listens. It's a pretty slow song, and quite accessible for the casual listener.

Sugar Boats has been available on YouTube as a live song for a long time, but none of those versions sound like this one. There's more depth, keyboards, and Brock's vocals are much clearer in the mix. I've noticed that a few songs on the album have a carnival quality to them, but with guitars rather than a fairground organ. The driving guitar is hypnotic and it's a strong track.

Wicked Campaign is a synthesizer-laden track which ebbs and flows. It ranges from tribal drums to stark vocals. It sounds...strange.  The more I listen, the more I get a feel for the structure. The last minute is blatant Modest Mouse with Brock in full flow. Yeah, I like it.

Be Brave has been around a while as a live track. Brock spits out the lyrics and it sounds better on the album than any version I have heard before. The fairground quality is there again, but the vocals are forceful and dominate the song. There's so much depth here. It's definitely one of the highlights from the album. It's amazing how the staccato vocals can still flow so well.

God is an Indian and You're an Asshole is the shortest song on the album at just over a minute. It wouldn't work well on its own, but it serves well as a link between the other songs, repeating a single idea.

The Tortoise and the Tourist starts off with discordant guitar, before bursting into action when the full band kicks in. It's a towering wall of sound, with Brock's vocals at their shouty best. I'm probably going to love this track after a few more listens.

The Best Room is probably my favorite song from those released early, and I have played it dozens of times. It has multiple phases, ranging from driving vocals to a more laid back sound. There's a great sequence in the middle with Brock's unaccompanied vocals. The abrupt ending always leaves me wanting more.

We all signed the card:
"Get well, but don't you try too hard"

Of Course We Know ends the album as it began, with a multilayered and epic sound. The keyboards and backing vocals don't sound like you would expect Modest Mouse to sound, but Brock's scratchy vocal removes any doubt.

So where does the new album rank when compared to other releases from my favorite band? Well, it's somewhere in the middle. My top three are The Lonesome Crowded West, The Moon & Antarctica, and This is a Long Drive. I would put Strangers to Ourselves in the same tier as Good News for People Who Love Bad News and We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank. As my disclaimer mentioned, that could change drastically when the songs are more familiar to me. I'm encouraged by my first impression.

Overall rating: 3.5/5 for Modest Mouse albums, 5/5 when compared to other bands.

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  1. I like the single Lampshades on Fire, in fact I included it in my top 50 songs of 2015 so far. Agree it's quite catchy for the casual listener(which I am, not familiar with Modest Mouse).

    I'm curious about The Fall you mention, which are their best known songs?

  2. Hi Chris,

    The Fall have been around since the late 70s and have produced more than 30 studio albums. Here are a few tracks so that you can judge whether you like them:

    Totally Wired

    Kicker Conspiracy

    Free Range

    More Modest Mouse - my ranking of the best songs

    My favorite albums with a video from each band

    Let me know if you find anything that you like.

    Thanks for reading.


    1. Thanks for the links! I like Totally Wired. I had no idea The Fall have recorded 30 studio albums.

    2. No problem. I was actually listening to Grotesque on the drive home (my favorite Fall album).