Album Reviews

Modest Mouse – We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank

(Columbia) UK release date: 2 April 2007

Modest Mouse - We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank These are goldrush days for the transatlantic alternative music lover. With Montreal’s finest the Arcade Fire‘s barnstorming comeback, and New Mexico’s The Shins blazing a trail in the UK, and brilliant but bonkers Camden chanteuse Amy Winehouse breaking into the Billboard Top 10, it seems 2007 is the year that music on both sides of the pond suddenly became interesting all over again.

But it was left to one seminal Washington band, with only modicums of previous success, to claim a shock number one record last week. Modest Mouse, a band with beginnings just as humble as their name, were the surprise entrants at the top of the Billboard chart in America last week, beating another stark-raving mad British export, Joss Stone.

Some of this success can be put down to their recruitment of Johnny Marr, the seminal Smiths guitarist. However, it would be disingenuous to say that this was the only reason for their triumph – the band, led by Isaac Brock, have grafted for years on the American underground to get where they are today. Fourteen years and five albums into a career that has been nothing less than remarkable, Brock and his often fluctuating crew have soundtracked a Nissan advert, seen their first three releases applauded by critics but ignored by record buyers, experienced a drummer’s mental breakdown, fought off accusations against Brock of date-rape and attempted murder and, perhaps most bizarrely, saw their breakthrough hit Float On used as a karaoke number in American Idol.

With We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank, any fears the hardcore fan might have that the successes of last album Good News For People Who Love Bad News had turned Modest Mouse into pop parodies of themselves is allayed right from the first track. March Into The Sea starts at the same feverish pace as the last record left off, a frantic, screaming sea shanty, freewheeling from Frank Black-esque gnashing of teeth to rarefied country ballad in a split second.

As a statement of intent, it’s hard to beat, and manages that most difficult of feats – raucously kick-starting a hit album without eschewing the quirks their loyal fanbase has come to expect. This neat trick is shown best on lead single Dashboard, which condenses Modest Mouse’s appeals into four joyous minutes. Both shamelessly populist and wilfully unconventional, over the top and understated, this is breakthrough pop at its very best.

From the pounding chorus of Parting Of The Sensory, which has Brock snarling “Someday you will die somehow!” until it becomes nothing more than a guttural yelp, straight into the gorgeous, genuinely valiant Missed The Boat, the kind of lovable loser anthem that you can imagine Bruce Springsteen knocking out, there is as much to adore here as to admire for its temerity.

Record execs in search of this year’s Float On will be tearing their hair out – there is nothing that matches the ubiquitous single’s buoyancy here, although the actually-exceedingly danceable We’ve Got Everything is a masterclass in post-punk freak out, something newcomers like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah should take notice of before releasing another record. Similarly, one of the album’s standout tracks, the slow burning Fire It Up is a loving reminder that Modest Mouse can craft oddball melodies as beautiful as jaw dropping as fellow popsters The Shins (whose singer James Mercer guests on two tracks here).

It’s not all good news – despite all evidence to the contrary, this album may not be to the taste of your average American Idol fan. Brock’s yelped vocal will terrify anyone thinking this will be Float On mark 2, especially when he’s allowed to really cut loose on the aptly named Fly In A Jar, and the much heralded presence of Marr is only felt initially on the peripheries It’s not until you listen to their earlier records that you realise that the band have really come on in leaps and bounds even since their last release – Marr’s influence guiding the band towards a more mature and full sound.

This are, however, simply short snippets of criticism for those who may be looking for bad news (forgive the pun). This is a band working at the very top of their game, and this album is a beautiful, brilliant beast.

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More on Modest Mouse
Modest Mouse – Strangers To Ourselves
Modest Mouse @ Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London
Modest Mouse @ Forum, London
Modest Mouse – We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank
Modest Mouse – Good News For People Who Love Bad News