I recently made a mix tape titled Corniness in Punk Rock, an effort not unlike setting a coin spinning on its edge so you can make heads and tails of it. On the dark side of the swoon, moans and minor keys lurked; whirling sunny side up, tart pop pastry. Modest Mouse scored just one spot on the tape (“Convenient Parking”), but it was—inevitably—the soundcheck (yourself before you wreck yourself) against which all the other cornball contenders were stacked, what with its Blair Witch-style tendency to keep doing the same shit over and over without ever truly revealing itself. Typical MM: really repetitive and where-did-you-go? whiny.
So where—or what—is the beef? Look in the pudding: rockin’ circular riffs like never-ending math equations (so cool the band named a song after them!) and rap-rhythmical rants—as hard as the Tribe’s proverbial two-day-old shit—that crumble into diffuse, dusty melodies. Singer/six-string-slinger Isaac Brock is a shameless broken-record/open-book crook, spilling everything over and over, blinking at the wide open: Where am I? What time is it? He gets tangled in his heartstrings and tugs at his skin for a way out. “Ha! That boy fell down on his harelip—Ow! Ow!” Brock shouted sassily three years ago, a cracked egg playing a yolk on himself.
Modest Mouse’s first two LPs, This Is a Long Drive for Someone With Nothing to Think About and The Lonesome Crowded West, respectively released in 1996 (three years after the band formed in Issaquah, Washington) and 1997, have funny names—wimpy names. (Speaking of which, I seriously believe my older brothers might’ve called me Modest Mouse between meting out dead-legs and wedgies.) Such absurdly sentimental titles designate all-too-appropriately the histrionics of some of Brock’s more, um, passionate vocalizations. Schizoid melodrama is the band’s strength, the sensitive-boy conceit a wavering canvas upon which illicit fantasies of suffering and regret can be splashed in wide swaths. Guilty pleasures like these are the best kind (just ask any Catholic schoolgirl). Anyway, straight tenderness has never gotten Modest Mouse far, nor, really, has art.
Enter Building Nothing Out of Something, a “rarities” collection, and (due in June) The Moon and Antarctica. The new albums mark the band’s ascension into major labeldom, the latter the big-league debut and the former a tearful indie imprint goodbye. The formula, of course, lives on. Building is a crafty comp midnight-marauding as an effort to sweep up the shavings; it actually sounds whole, as if cut on a lathe. Two tunes falter: “Sleepwalkin’ ” is diluted with watery melodies (and dry female harmonizing) and the intro to “Medication” suffers from muted-car-horn-and-avian-twitter ambience. But when you count its good-love-gone-badass numbers, Building still rocks the socks off the well-heeled albums of old. Head-nodders rule the roots—the material, culled from 7-inches and such, either inspires hip-hop headbanging (like normal, but more relaxed and no metal sign) or nodding off (in the narcotic sense—good thing).
The Moon and Antarctica (a desolate name, in the tradition, but no heh heh linguistic gags) sounds clean and well-oiled (but not oi!-ed, heh heh). Forgoing the lo-fi whisper-clatter dynamic of old, MM make their bits click and connect like a mouse on a link; Eric Judy’s bass is full and heavy, Jeremiah Green’s drums boomy, the guitars clear and cutting. Like Lever 2000, the studio scrubbing leaves no noticeable film; even the effects—like the spacey guitar that launches “Gravity Rides Everything”—ring true. Unexpected structural turns are folded into relentless, staccato recurrence, recalling RZA’s warped sampling techniques (see especially “The Man,” off the Ghost Dog soundtrack) and the disquieting breaks of intelligent dance musicians Pilote.
Even though they’re guitar-bass-drums (plus strings ‘n’ things), MM are ultimately more humpty dance than monster mash, catching a groove on their best tracks and always making it smooooth, rough!—as simultaneously seductive and repellent as R. Kelly on his best nights. “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes” is the man on The Moon and Antarctica, beaming down a spare high-hat signature and rolling bassline guitar whorls spiraling in the empty spaces. Brock’s vocals are doubled so he can mono-talk and sing-song (“I’m wearin’ myself a T-shirt that says, ‘The world is my ashtray’ “) till the screamy, uninflected chorus. The track never quite resolves into the fine-grained focus of rock or dance.
This moving platform is just what Brock needs to twist and shout. “It took a lot of work to be the ass that I am . . . [but] I’m not the dark center of the universe like you thought,” he asseverates. Face value, it sounds like he’s between a crock and a hard place, but really he’s stuck nowhere. “The universe is shaped exactly like the earth; if you go straight long enough you’ll end up where you were.” Stories are just things our protagonist picks up along the way, like the one related to him in the “All Nite Diner”: “When I have sex I’m always thinking ’bout the pavement/So I can avoid premature ejaculation.” The road frustrates again! Roland Barthes devised his own never-ending equation to describe this: “Boredom is not far from bliss: It is bliss seen from the shores of pleasure.” Modest Mouse caught a wave.
Modest Mouse play the Bowery Ballroom May 19 and 20.