PrimerPrimer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginner’s guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you.  

Modest Mouse 101

Countless indie darlings have made the jump from cred-laden buzz band to major label fixture. Just ask R.E.M., The Replacements, and Sonic Youth. A whole new generation of underground acts made the switch around the turn of the last century with Modest Mouse’s jump from Up Records to Epic occurring around the same time as Death Cab For Cutie, The Decemberists, and Iron & Wine. Led by a core trio of frontman Isaac Brock, percussionist Jeremiah Green, and bassist Eric Judy (with Brock remaining the only constant throughout the group’s entire run), Modest Mouse began in a shack owned by Brock’s family, and began putting out music in 1993. By 1999—after the very successful The Lonesome Crowded West—Epic saw enough promise to think that the band’s deeply melodic and just as deeply weird output might have even greater appeal. And even more strange than Brock’s soul-searching, God-doubting lyrics is the fact that Epic was right.

Both at the time of its release and in retrospect, The Lonesome Crowded West stands as a masterpiece. Whether 15 or 16 songs (the vinyl release includes “Baby Blue Sedan” and is all the better for it), the 1997 LP features Brock and company dipping their toes in a variety of pools, shuffling together extended post-hardcore ragers (“Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine,” “Doin’ The Cockroach”), emo-tinged ballads (“Bankrupt On Selling,” “Polar Opposites”) and, maybe the best, unclassifiable cuts that landed somewhere in the middle (“Trailer Trash,” “Cowboy Dan”). The Lonesome Crowded West wasn’t an audition for Epic, but it might as well have been, showing range while still focused and thematic.

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Whether he was playing the guitar or the banjo, Brock demonstrated a knack for instrumentally, taking his melodies where his limited vocal range couldn’t. Brock’s a hell of a screamer and he gurgles with a ferocious appetite, but his guitar lines bring harmony to the songs, taming the abrasiveness. A song like “Trailer Trash,” with Brock singing explicitly about his upbringing, is memorable as much for its lyrical content as for the triumphant guitar solo that Brock brings on the outro.

Epic ostensibly signed Modest Mouse thinking that the label might make some money with this banjo-playing, boozy, druggy, and not particularly attractive group. Hell, even Warner Bros. managed to get a hit out of The Flaming Lips.

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That said, the phenomenon that was “Float On” was just bonkers.

The title of 2004’s Good News For People Who Love Bad News foreshadowed the content, if less for thematic purposes than for how long-term fans would react to it. The title was the proclamation of a changed sound, of a turn away from difficult, ultimately rich and rewarding music toward lower hanging fruit. Songs like “Float On,” “Ocean Breathes Salty,” and “The World At Large” were made for big crowds. But the crowd pleasers still harbored Brock’s idiosyncratic wit. “My thoughts were so loud I couldn’t hear my mouth,” he sings on “The World At Large,” remaining true to the lyrical turns he’d been perfecting for a decade, coming across as both high-brow and populist at the same time.

The album was a bigger hit than any of the group’s fans could have imagined possible, going platinum just a few months after being released, and with “Float On” eventually seeing covers on both American Idol and that year’s Kidz Bop release. And as much a bore that song has become, becoming unbearably over-played when it topped the Modern Rock Billboard charts, when Modest Mouse performs that song at a festival, in a big crowd, watching the mood of thousands of people collectively lift is a marvelous thing to behold.

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Intermediate work

Clustered around The Lonesome Crowded West is the debut LP This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About, the Interstate 8 EP, and numerous singles that were later collected onto 2000’s Building Nothing Out Of Something—which for the initiated, all becomes essential, with hardly a blemish in the bunch.

The titles of these collections offer a glimpse into Modest Mouse’s appeal. From track one of album one, when Brock exclaims, “I think I know my geography pretty damn well,” on “Dramamine,” he solidified himself as a lyrics guy, as a songwriter with not only something to say, but with an original way to say it.

As a debut LP, This Is A Long Drive foreshadowed The Lonesome Crowded West, matching the heights, but still untamed. Standouts like “Dramamine,” “Custom Concern,” and “Talking Shit About A Pretty Sunset” are well represented, but so are sprawling experiments like “Beach Side Property” and “Make Everyone Happy/Mechanical Birds.” One song, “Lounge,” actually appears in different forms on both Modest Mouse’s This Is A Long Drive and The Lonesome Crowded West, with the revised version exemplifying Brock’s improved ear for song structure.

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As for the singles and B-sides of the ’90s, there is a lot to love and Building Nothing Out Of Something ties them all up for the listener’s convenience. “Never Ending Math Equation,” “Broke,” and “Whenever You Breathe Out, I Breathe In (Positive Negative)” are all as strong as anything from Modest Mouse’s proper LPs, with only the inconsistent production quality in the set providing an obstacle to the casual fan.

The current consensus on The Moon & Antarctica, Modest Mouse’s major label debut, is that it’s a modern rock ’n’ roll classic, but at the time of its release in 2000, there was some dissension in the ranks. Quite a few critics didn’t know what to make of the album’s lofty concept, which reaches both for the outer limits of the cosmos and poses questions of what happens after we die.

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Sonically, the album saw a distinct refinement of sound, evident in tracks spanning from the car-commercial smoothness of “Gravity Rides Everything” to the sprawling, dramatic three-song run of “The Cold Part,” “A Different City,” and “The Stars Are Projectors.” Modest Mouse didn’t make things easy for listeners with its first shot at mass audiences. Instead, the group took the expanded resources and pushed its sound in as many different ways as it could, as far as the group’s abilities would take it.

To no one’s surprise, the album made little initial commercial impact, peaking at 120 on the Billboard 200. But the music business is a marathon and not a sprint. The album would eventually go on to sell more than 500,000 copies in the U.S. and was voted the sixth best album of the decade by Pitchfork.

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This period also saw the band compile its Night On The Sun EP and other era odds-and-ends into another release, Everywhere And His Nasty Parlor Tricks. This made even less of a mainstream impact, despite containing one of the best songs in the Modest Mouse catalog, “Night On The Sun.”

Advanced studies

It was a long ride from Modest Mouse’s first EP, 1994’s promise-filled Blue Cadet-3, Do You Connect? to its major-label debut. The group’s initial five-song offering is notable both for being recorded by K Records founder and Beat Happening leader Calvin Johnson and for the brief moments foreshadowing the greatness that was to come, particularly on “Dukes Up” (which strangely resembles Iron Maiden’s “The Number Of The Beast”) and “It Always Rains On A Picnic.” Also, “5-4-3-2-1… Lisp Off” acknowledged Brock’s speech impediment with gusto, beating any hecklers to the punch.

These songs would later resurface on Sad Sappy Sucker in 2001, the last release Modest Mouse put out on K. The story goes that Sad Sappy Sucker was meant to be Modest Mouse’s debut LP, but was shelved for five years in favor of the group’s Up Records releases. This was a good move.

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The 10 years that followed Good News For People Who Love Bad News included just a single LP release and a roundup of previously unreleased album outtakes, We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank and No One’s First And You’re Next, respectively. Both records moved further from the band’s roots, and satisfy only as shadows of what the band once was. The Smiths’ Johnny Marr joined the band for a couple years, The Shins’ James Mercer became a frequent backup singer, and the band found a comfortable niche touring for a month or two every year before drifting back into dormancy.

Songs like “Dashboard” and “Fly Trapped In A Jar” mapped out a new shape for Modest Mouse’s songs, emphasizing Brock’s rhythmic cadences and relying on him shouting rather than asking him to sing. Strings and horns became fixtures of the band’s songs, justifying the group’s live expansion to six or eight members on any given night, including dual percussionists.

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Even if these records are underwhelming, Modest Mouse still used them to find commercial success. We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, not selling as much cumulatively as the album that preceded it, but representing Modest Mouse’s third consecutive LP to go at least gold in the U.S.

Where exactly Modest Mouse’s 2015 album, Strangers To Ourselves, will land commercially and artistically remains to be seen. If the title is once again indicative of what the album contains, Modest Mouse could have become sonically unrecognizable to even themselves. Four singles from the collection have already seen the light of day, with each representing a different piece of the band’s late-career identity.

Miscellany

Despite Modest Mouse’s recording history ties to K, Up, and Epic, Isaac Brock worked for Sub Pop as an A&R man for some time around the turn of the century, notably bringing Wolf Parade to the label and producing that group’s first album. Brock also made Sub Pop home to his Modest Mouse side project, Ugly Casanova, which was really just most of Modest Mouse with a different name. That group’s only LP, 2002’s Sharpen Your Teeth, fits comfortably in the Modest Mouse catalog, showing little sonic departure. The band also released an early single in 1997, as well as a quite excellent single, “Diggin’ Holes,” in 2002. Ugly Casanova’s last appearance was in 2010, releasing several songs for the 180 Degrees South: Conquerors Of The Useless soundtrack. Any questions as to why releases have been so sporadic and inconsistent from Ugly Casanova can be answered by simply looking at the career of Modest Mouse. Isaac Brock’s own label is even called Glacial Pace, a nod to his general lack of urgency.

Modest Mouse also has a live album, 2004’s Baron Von Bullshit Rides Again. The curious thing about this collection is that it comes from a remarkably sorry time for the band as a live entity. It took Modest Mouse another decade to really flesh itself out as a touring band, with Brock now regularly getting through performing without getting wasted, and actually putting out a nightly set that could satisfy both long-term fans and radio-only attendees. As such, the Modest Mouse live album is for completists only.

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The essentials

  1. The Lonesome Crowded West
  2. The Moon & Antarctica
  3. Building Nothing Out of Something
  4. This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About
  5. Good News For People Who Love Bad News

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