Modest Mouse - We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank Released March 20th, 2007
Released via Sony Music/Epic
Allusions to death and the afterlife, crass cynicism, and pessimistic wordplay were all wonderful lyrical role models for my first foray into indie rock. This venture oddly enough began in an American Eagle at Georgia’s North Point Mall. Feeling the need for a new array of corporate spun polo-tees led me into the brightly lit, heavily perfumed AE showroom. It was fate, as I see it, that Modest Mouse’s “Float On” came tumbling out of the store’s speakers that day. Coming out of that mall a few hours later I was a changed boy. No longer worried about whom I’d impress the next day at school, I set to work on finding out more about this band that had just opened up my ears. Little by little, This is a Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About, The Lonesome Crowded West, and The Moon and Antarctica slowly found their way into my, at that time, virtually empty CD shelf. Long story short, I would find myself exploring decrepit fan-sites, a lacking official website, and countless forums that touched and went on the band. The lack of information didn’t keep me from learning to play “Dramamine” on my bass, annotating themes and symbolism in “3rd Planet” and utterly worshipping “Styrofoam Boots”. All of the latter because of a humbly-formed, Issaquah based, angular indie-rock band by the name of Modest Mouse. Today I consider myself somewhat of an expert on the band and well-connected with the majority of the indie scene because of my beginnings with Isaac Brock and Co. Now, well after four full-lengths, four proper EPs, two B-side albums, and an official bootleg have been released by Washington’s finest, we are met with We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank. If Brock’s perpetual use of allusions to death and the afterlife, crass cynicism, and pessimistic wordplay has taught me anything; it’s that his genius is outright timeless and one of the reasons I write for this site today.
Fourteen tracks full and fourteen minutes longer than 2004’s Good News For People Who Love Bad News, Modest Mouse’s long overdue follow-up to the band’s first proper publicly acclaimed album is finally upon us. Skepticism was rampant when news of a “nautical balalaika carnival romp" was Isaac’s early and highly ambiguous description to the eagerly awaited upcoming album. Coupled with the drastic change of the band’s instrumental focus on Good News… left some fans wondering if they really wanted an album basically drenched with alternative-radio saliva and major label puppet-strings. We underestimated the band’s defiance, however. We Were Dead…is a slight shuffle backwards from 2004’s big-band, happy go lucky indie-alternative mesh. Riding with an uninterrupted “water/boat” theme through the entire album, Isaac is able to both properly appease hungry “old school” fans and Mouse newbies with stimulating lyrical banter in Brock’s by-now infamous cynical approach. Lest we forget the roles of longtime bassist Eric Judy, percussionist Joe Plummer, former Hackensaw Boys member Tom Peloso, newly appointed member and legendary guitarist of The Smiths; Johnny Marr, and returning drummer Jeremiah Green as the basis of Modest’s truly signature instrumental style.
Progressing from the sun-soaked, desert soundtrack of The Lonesome Crowded West, to the cranky subterranean tone of Everywhere and His Nasty Parlour Tricks, and the well-known, unorthodox pop flair of Good News…; it’s intriguing to see how past influences and present initiatives mix to form a sort of a sea-bred longing; a stressed pirate-jangle spread through the height of optimism and the climax of melody we find in the melancholy. Johnny Marr’s inclusion is an interesting one as well, one that for better or worse seems to dramatize song progression with his expert maneuvering on the six-string. His drawn out riffs give Isaac some wiggle room during choruses and verses alike, thus allowing more space for Isaac to thrust his lisped bellows in more carefully.
The rest of the band remains the same, for the most part. Bassist Eric Judy is split between keeping it dance-y (“Education”) and slightly atmospheric (“March into the Sea”). He keeps the rhythm section is complete check, dating farther back than his crucial part in The Moon and Antarctica, where supposedly producer Brian Deck used Judy’s improvisations and direction for assistance in adding the studio-bred fills. Renowned drummer Jeremiah Green, however, hardly seems on his game this time around. His solid backing on the first single, “Dashboard”, is about as good as it gets from Mr. Green. Considering his work on Mouse’s previous albums, it’s fairly disappointing for Green’s triumphant return, after his departure during Good News…, to come off so trite and no better than having to be patient with Benjamin Weikel. Tom and Joe remain rather inconspicuous, as they usually do other than during live shows. Their involvement, however, is completely appreciated; if only I could pinpoint where exactly they are involved.
If its one thing Modest Mouse can do right, since the days of Sad Sappy Sucker, is write an album that is without any lackluster tracks. There are some tracks that probably could’ve been ousted such as “Steam Engenius” or “People as Places as People”, but they’re still completely listenable. I doubt anyone should dwell on the missteps, though, when the rest of We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank is one of the more memorable Mouse releases, if not the most resourceful. Songs like “Fire It Up”, a track worthy of being the first single in my opinion, and “Missed the Boat”, a slower song that is the best example of Brock’s lyrical genius since “3rd Planet”, are what makes this album so outstanding. It may not have a song with the mass appeal of “Float On”, but that’s how I think Modest Mouse acknowledged their past fan base; keeping it recognizable while sprinkling it with a few radio-friendly songs here and there for the kiddies.
We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank has Modest Mouse finally rediscovered their form and figure in a way that is completely unexpected. I couldn’t have asked for a better release from a better band. The last three years has found me quite in touch with these gentlemen, and my love for this release confirms it wasn’t just a reactionary fondness when I first found Good News…I've have indeed reaffirmed that music just doesn't get closer to my heart than this, even if it comes in commercially viable indie-rock form.