It makes perfect sense that Johnny Marr would join this band. Listening to the last couple of Modest Mouse records you might think the former Smiths guitarist had been there all along; or at least an approximation of the late-80s/early-90s version of Johnny Marr. The last several years have seen Marr’s guitar work veer from the groundbreaking jangle and melodic style that established the Smiths as arguably the most musically accomplished of the original British indie bands who act as the founders of the alternative nation we all live in today.
The Smiths’ influence can barely be heard in the guitar heavy Britpop of the 90s, and even the Marr-fronted Healers displayed more traditional guitar wankery than was comfortable for the many who hailed Mozzer’s ex-partner as the first bona fide guitar anti-hero. And so there’s great irony in the fact that it took a call from Portland, Oregon to bring Marr back to his roots and to a style that set the sound for a generation of American indie bands.
Isaac Brock has a bit of legacy to carry as well. If Marr’s guitar work can be credited with inspiring half of the American indie acts out now, Brock can be credited with creating the other half. His sometimes awkward holler and response vocal style can be heard in imitation from hundreds of bands coast to coast and all over college radio from Arcade Fire to Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. His melding of found-object percussion and neo-disco beats have fueled the musical engines of countless MySpace media darlings and CMJ buzz bands for years now and it is Brock who more than almost anyone else represents the modern “indie” ethic of art and commerce. Who else can claim so much cred while selling songs to commercials and signing to anti-consumer corporations like Sony Music? Like Bob Dylan’s recent forays into commercials and corporate hucksterism, Brock’s decisions to do the same hardly seem to injure his reputation.
We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank is the manifestation of Brock’s greatest indie rock coup. While his peers are desperately seeking authentic 80s sounds with vintage synthesizers and ugly clothes, Brock went right out and got himself the genuine article. And it’s paid off in spades. Not only is this the band’s most musically accomplished and mature album, it’s catchy as fuck. If early Modest Mouse fans were dismayed to find their little secret spreading with the use of “Float On” in car commercials, they’re going to be shitting their pants when the inevitable happens again. How can it not when you have songs like lead-off single “Dashboard” (stream) so perfectly matched for a Hyundai commercial and the lilting “Little Motel” surely inspiring a scene in Zach Braff’s next vehicle? Get used to it, dorks, Modest Mouse is just going to get bigger. But is that so bad? At least you can take solace in knowing you bagged them first.
We Were Dead is also an exercise in how production makes or breaks an album. There’s clear reverence to Marr’s playing in the mix. The guitars are way up front and layered so all of his melodies and inflections can be heard. It may lack some of the dynamics of earlier Modest Mouse records, but it’s also more consistent. Brock’s purposely abrasive and punchy vocals no longer dominate the mix, they’re now tempered by Marr’s complex accompaniment and the result is an album more comfortable with itself. Brock’s own unique melodic sense no longer sounds like it’s straining to be heard through the din of noise that sometimes cluttered the band’s earlier work.
As a fan of both musicians, I was excited to hear they were teaming. Having now heard the results I hope it continues and I’ll happily clap along to the countless ads sure to feature their songs. It’s likely the only way you’ll hear any of this on Top 40 radio so I guess we can’t complain too much.
Modest Mouse – Dashboard