Monday, March 26, 2007

Album Review: Modest Mouse - We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank

Grade: 63.5%
Official Rating: 67.8%

What the Others Think

Pitchfork Score: 7.8
Tiny Mix Tapes Score: 4 1/2 (out of 5)
Coke Machine Glow: N/A

First off, before I get on to the review properly, I need to retrace my steps a bit. This may put off some who were hoping to dive right in to a quick and breezy review of this album, but these things have to be said (or written as it were).

As you may have noticed, this album received a score, the first album I've given a score to. Well, I'll soon have another post explaining the score system. Those of you confused as to why I have two scores will soon receive an answer, and those of you wondering how I came to the scores will also know. I should have typed that post first, but I started this one already and I'm not the type of writer who can stop dead in my tracks once I get going.

The other thing I feel like I need to explain is where I stand as a Modest Mouse fan. This might not seem important, especially if you are a fairly new fan of the band, but I think it is important. With other publications, online or printed, you have the luxury of being able to search through years of reviews and articles, order back issues, read the 2 year old issues of Filter that are lying beside your toilet, whatever. The point is, if you don't know the tone the publication usually takes with a certain band, you can easily find out. But with this blog, since this is a fairly new blog and I'm the only one posting on it, if I don't take the time to properly explain myself then you, the reader, will have no idea what my stance is on a band like Modest Mouse. Ultimately, you might stumble across this review and think to yourself, "this guy probably hated Good News For People Who Love Bad News, of course he'll score this one low too." Or, "he's such a fucking snob, he probably only listens to This is a Long Drive For Someone With Nothing to Think About, and despises the poseurs who do not give the album the courtesy it deserves when they shorten it to Long Drive. Both statements would be completely inaccurate, which is exactly why I feel like I have to give a little background information before I go on.

The first thing you should know is that I like all of the Modest Mouse albums. I was a fan before Good Newswas released in April of '04, not that it really matters in the long run. I honestly think that Modest Mouse is one of the best bands of the past decade or so. However, it should be worth noting that I do not feel that any of their albums are classics. All of them have their own separate flaws, and most of them suffer from the same flaw that has dogged the band as much as the Built to Spill comparisons have, in that all of their albums contain fair amounts of filler and/or often drag along several songs too long. The only real exception to that rule is Good News, but it comes awfully close. The interlude track "Milo" is pointless, and "Black Cadillacs" isn't terribly impressive. Fortunately that album has solid tracks like "Blame it on the Tetons" and the best closing track on any of their albums, "The Good Times are Killing Me", for which Isaac Brock should be thanking the Flaming Lips and David Bowie, the former for their help in giving the song some extra punch, and latter for being such a good sport about the whole ripping off "Starman" thing.

But to be flawed is to be human, and like a good friend or family member, you overlook the flaws and flaws and learn to love the good inside of them. Fortunately, Modest Mouse do have more than enough to like about them. Songs like "Trailer Trash", "Bukowski", and "Stars Are Projectors" are not simply highlights on spotty albums, they are some of the best songs ever written. A bold statement, I know, but one that I stand by.

So what about the new album? Well, I'm glad you asked.

The new album, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, for better or worse, picks up where Good News left off. I really wanted to write a review without comparing the two albums, but it is almost impossible to do so. We Were Dead sounds like the natural progression sonically, lyrically, and hell, even the album titles make a complete sentence if you put them together (Good news for people who love bad news, we were dead before the ship even sank. It almost sounds like a headline in the Onion). If you were to take Good News, tone down the Tom Waits, and increase the Talking Heads, that would be a good start as to how to describe this album. That is not to say that this is a dance album, though at times it strives for that direction. Other times it sounds like Modest Mouse: quirky, dark, kinda rockin'. The album flows fairly well, but definitely seems unfocused. Of the albums four best songs, two are danceably derivative of Talking Heads ("Fly Trapped in a Jar", "Education"), an Apocalyptic ho-down ("Parting of the Sensory), and the 8 1/2 minute "Spitting Venom", which sounds like several different era's of Modest Mouse rolled into one.

It is hard not to commend a band for its versatility, especially when it yields good results, but for every great song on We Were Dead there is one that treads water, and a couple that fall flat altogether. "Little Motel" and "Missed the Boat" sound a little too much like Bright Eyes, and while I think that Modest Mouse's sensitive, slower side can easily go toe-to-toe with the best of Bright Eyes' work (and easily triumph over Conner Oberst's worst) these two songs just don't cut it. The former is not a terrible song, its just not a terribly memorable one either. "Missed the Boat" certainly lives up to its name, and not even a cameo by the Shins' James Mercer can save it. In fact, Mr. Mercer must be a curse, as "Florida", another song he appears on, doesn't get any good until after he's gone, and Isaac growls and fights to save the song from drowning.

To be completely honest, and I'm probably alone in this sentiment, but I feel like the dance-rock direction many of the songs take worked pretty well. As I mentioned earlier, two of the best songs, while undeniably Talking Heads influenced, really fucking rock. "Dashboard" still sounds a little too glossy, but so did "Float On" at first. The only thing really holding "Dashboard" back now are the lyrics. The first few seconds of "Steam Engenius" makes you think the song is going to be incredibly cheesy, but only momentarily as it quickly finds a funky groove and rides it until the end.

But in the end, this is an album for fans of Good News, and those hoping for the lo-fi, poor man's cross between Built to Spill and the Pixies sound of old will not find much solace here. Even still, being a fan of Good News might not mean much if you cannot get past the few snoozers and unfocused nature of this album. It is entirely possible that this album will end up in used bins all across the country because there aren't enough dance tracks to appease the fans of "Dashboard", and not enough quirky, slow burners likely to appease fans of "Fire It Up". But as I mentioned earlier, looking past the flaws is a must for Modest Mouse fans. You may have to swim a bit deeper to find this ship's treasures, but I assure you that they are there.

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