April 26, 2007

Just Enough To Keep Afloat

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Once Modest Mouse released Good News for People Who Love Bad News in 2004, there was no turning back. After their unexpected breakout hit “Float On,” how could they return to the more languid, “Dramamine”-laced sound of yore? The answer is, they couldn’t, and their newest effort, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank doesn’t try to fight the tide.
This album is less dynamic and hard-hitting than their earlier, more obtuse records, like The Moon and Antarctica (2000), or The Lonesome Crowded West (1998) — but it is a solid, radio — friendly album nonetheless. Despite this album’s strength, however, We Were Dead sounds self-conscious and caged, as if Modest Mouse is insecure in their new capacity. While they don’t completely scrap their old tricks, they hone their instrumental expertise into digestible, pop sound-bytes by truncating their songs to an average five minutes each. This technique helps to refine their new pop aesthetic, but also draws Modest Mouse further away from their former self.
Unlike their previous efforts, this album’s melodies often ring with a formulaic sound, and the lyrics overwhelmingly smack of Isaac Brock’s now-tired koans regarding loneliness, desolation and self-alienation. While his emotion sounded authentic ten years ago, it now sounds contrived and forced, as if he’s tired of his own rhetoric. Indeed, after a run-through of We Were Dead, you begin to think that you have already heard it before.
Nevertheless, Modest Mouse crafts great pop songs, the standout track being the current single and the second track on the album, “Dashboard.” As the more flamboyant cousin to “Float On,” it is an undeniably catchy song. Lyrically, the chorus is easy to sing along to (just don’t over-think the logical fallacy): “Well, the dashboard melted, but we still have the radio.” Sonically, the melody is likewise accessible: the guitars and drums coalesce in a buoyant dance rhythm. Then, about three-quarters of the way through, a muffled electronic synthesizer, sounding like European house music heard from a room away, takes over the disco backbeat until the driving guitars and drums sweep back in.
After “Dashboard” comes a string of songs full of infectious hooks, which keeps the album afloat. Still, the album slows after the first seven songs, as the second half of the album indulges Modest Mouse’s penchant for more discordant orchestrations. Still, these so-called “discordant” tracks, such as “Fly Trapped in a Jar,” are not so cacophonous so as to disturb the fragile balance between indie and pop genres that Modest Mouse is learning to tread.
Brock proclaims on “We’ve Got Everything,” “We’ve got everything down to a science/ So I guess we know everything.” With We Were Dead, one definitely gets the impression that Modest Mouse finally does have their sound attuned to a certain science-which has positives and negatives all its own. While this album may not be their best, it is still great music to sing along with on those long drives with nothing to think about.