Can it really be 18 years have passed since a group of guys barely out of high school formed Modest Mouse in Issaquah, Washington? Time has flown for the fans of the esteemed post grunge alternative band, and a retrospective of their first two amazing albums is well deserved. The founders of Modest Mouse are Isaac Brock, guitars, vocals, Jeremiah Green, drums, and Eric Jody, Bass. The band would go through various incarnations; even including on their last release the legendary Johnny Marr .They took the name of the band from a Virginia Woolf short story, “The Mark on the Wall”. That alone should have indicated to listeners they were in for a much more introspective literary band, than many that roamed the land at the time. Their sound was all their own, with an original mixture of punk, grunge, a signature guitar and vocals combining into alchemy that makes them legendary.
For later fans of Modest Mouse it is easy to forget the sheer effort the band put into making it to a larger stage. Also easily forgotten is how amazing and accomplished both Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Talk About and The Lonesome Crowded West were for a band so young. Both releases were put out by Up Records, Steve Wold produced Long Drive, and Scott Swayze produced The Lonesome Crowded West. Another early enabler for the band was Calvin Johnson who was very involved with the rock scene in Olympia, Washington. He was one of the first to recognize the potential of the group. Modest Mouse sprang out of the Olympia scene that included bands like Built to Spill, Carp and Kicking Giant.
The band was on a” long haul” drive to recognition, with their start in basement house shows, and all age clubs. They perpetually toured in their beloved camper van. The van and its mechanical misadventures would serve as subject matter throughout The Lonesome Crowded West disc. Modest Mouse was also at the nexus of the struggle to come to grips with the uneasy transition in the music scene from grunge to what would come next. At the time Isaac Brock was obsessed with not being pigeon holed in either the Seattle or Olympia Washington music scenes, wanting to move beyond both to a larger platform.
Brock is a songwriter of note, loving wordplay, metaphors and insightful twists of phrase. He utilizes philosophical lyrics, and themes of oppressive rural lifestyles, and never shirks from discussing his views on religion. These two albums especially focus on existential questions Brock was dealing with at the time. These albums find him in a period where he had turned on the religious beliefs he had been raised with, and also questioning what coming into adulthood at the end of the millennium meant. The songs are searching and somewhat angst ridden, but the insight and emotional straightforwardness gives the songs a timelessness that makes them as fresh as when they were first recorded.
The two records together, particularly Lonesome’s release helped Modest Mouse gain a cult following and would become the band’s breakthrough album. Lonesome is now popularly considered one of the definitive albums of mid 1990’s indie rock. Both albums address worries about urban sprawl and inner conflicts of feeling moor less in an every shifting sea of mores changes.
The Northwest region of America in the late 90’s suddenly changed from sleepy towns, to “mall hell” metroplexes. Forests were being cut down and unnecessary strip malls and their like seemingly sprung up over night. The two albums were a reaction to this occurrence. As the band hit the road on tours, they noticed that these same phenomena were occurring throughout the western US. The band’s angst and consternation about what was going on was channeled into the music. Songs such as “Trucker’s Atlas”, “Dramamine” and “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine” or as it is popularly known, “The Orange Julius Song”, go on at length playing out what the results would be of the urban sprawl. They were spot on in their prophecies that the malls would be the eventual new ghost towns.
On Long Drive, a song such as “Dramamine” was illuminated by the band’s journey through America. The song is still one of the best lead off songs on a debut album ever. With it’s beautiful guitar chords and lyrics that were filled with hooks. It is no wonder that the song is still a showstopper. “Beach Side Property”,” Novocain Stain” and “Ohio” all again pick up the themes of urban sprawl ruining the countryside as it homogenizes everything in its path. “Exit Does Not Exist” is the epic jam out of the album with introspective lyrics examining deep topics such as the meaning of life and the choice of which paths to take in life.
Then there is my personal favorite of the album, “Talking Shit about a Pretty Sunset”. The lyrics alone make this the “not to be missed” song of the album,
“Looking kinda anxious in your cross armed stance, like a bad tempered prom queen at a home coming dance.” “I claim I’m not excited with my life anymore, so I blame this town, this job, these friends, but the truth is it’s myself.” “I try to understand myself, and pinpoint where I am, when I finally get it figured out I change the whole damn plan.”
This is some lyrically great insight from a guy barely in his twenties at the time. The straightforward description of every person’s attempt to rationalize floundering and doubt is what makes the lyrics Brock writes so engaging.
The Lonesome Crowded West is the companion piece of Long Drive. The song “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine” or “The Orange Julius Song” is informed by the band’s continued experiences on the road touring. Older and wiser than their years with the second album, the group gets even more cohesive in their music. There is definite musical progression from the first album. The long jams on many of the songs push through the speakers their angst over the condition of the American West and what they identified as the wringing out of the last drop of originality as every thing becomes cookie cutter strip malls and developments. “Convenient Parking” ,”Trailer Trash”, “Trucker’s Atlas” and “Shit Luck” all expound on the topic as the band jams away with their own distinctive musical style. At times Brock seems to be channeling his inner demons through the songs to great effect.
The second theme that steps to the forefront on Lonesome is Brock’s meditations on Christianity and religion in general. Brock is a professing Atheist, but he has said that because of the way he was raised he is still always looking over his shoulder feeling something is watching him. “Jesus was an Only Child”,” Cowboy Dan”, and “Bankrupt on Selling” deal with the conundrum. On “Cowboy Dan” Brock sings about a man who is angry with God and mad about the shape the world is in, he shoots into the sky to kill God. “God if I have to die, they you have to”. “Bankrupt On Selling”, is a beautiful song that suggests that we are all sellouts for a price and that even the apostles and angels have a price they are willing to sell out for if the right offer is made.
Before anyone gets the wrong idea that they need a PhD in philosophy to enjoy Modest Mouse, rest assured that the content of these two albums happens over amazing music, that is engaging and danceable. The heaviness of the subject matter can just flow over your as you get your groove on to the music. That is the amazing thing about what Modest Mouse does with both these discs and much of their later releases.
Both Long Drive and Lonesome are from a band at the start of their career. It is amazing to see how all the elements that make them great were already there at the beginning of their formation. Both albums are quintessential to any admirer of Modest Mouse. They are also a great introduction to Modest Mouse for first time listeners. Modest Mouse are of their time and transcend it, the first two albums are almost completely American in feeling and purpose, providing a snap shot of America at the cusp of a new Millennium. Eventually Modest Mouse would take on the world but as Isaac Brock says of these two albums, they didn’t perform in Europe because the Europeans probably didn’t want some guy with a lisp shouting at them about Northwest American dystopia. The songs are timeless and as relevant today as they were almost two decades later. A much deserved re release.