- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Modest Mouse

We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank Epic

Modest Mouse’s brilliant new album has an operatic quality that is hard to chalk up to coincidence. Fourteen new tracks by vocalist and bandleader Isaac Brock form the rough outline of a story about a gang of ordinary seamen who perpetually stumble into trouble, owing to a taste for drink and perhaps an even stronger thirst for failure. This isn’t spelled out on liner notes, however, or confirmed by a close reading of the lyrics. The songs divide between lyrically dense tracks featuring vocal lines that are more spoken than sung, with soaring arias that possess a pleasing pop circularity. Most are about the sea or touch on nautical themes.

The order of play lends itself to this theory. Though the first three songs share strong hooks, they reflect the very different sensibilities that characterize the album. The first song, “March Into the Sea,” opens with a few lonely toots on a melodica before bursting into a full-blown punk-inflected rant. “Dashboard,” the pop single, counterpoints a driving tom-tom line with a hesitant guitar riff that blows open with a horn section and disco-saturated synthesizer sounds. Despite the song’s black humor, captured in the signature line, “Oh the dashboard melted but we still had the radio,” it is irresistibly catchy and likely will get its share of radio time. “Fire It Up,” a sultry, downbeat, bass-driven track, harks back to the band’s grunge roots in the Pacific Northwest of the early 1990s.

Shins vocalist James Mercer appears as a guest artist on three of the next four songs — and then mysteriously disappears like a character who got killed off. Mr. Mercer’s sweet, smooth voice contrasts sharply with Mr. Brock’s hoarse, jangled styling. Each of the songs on which Mr. Mercer appears is a variation on the theme of failure — a foreseeable yet somehow inevitable brand of failure that forms the narrative backbone of “We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank.”

“Fly Trapped in a Jar” is as much a tribute to David Byrne as the band’s 2004 track “Devil’s Workday” was to Tom Waits. It starts with the sound of a buzzing fly that resolves into a fuzz-box guitar riff out of which emerges the plaintive mantra, “One wing wasn’t even enough.” It’s the most electric, intense song on the album, and though it isn’t likely to chart, it promises to be a high point of Modest Mouse shows.

The structure here, though clearly purposeful, does not rise to the level of an actual rock opera like the Who’s “Tommy” or Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.” Perhaps a better model would be the concept album. In that vein, “We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank” is a little like David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” in its stylistic diversity and devotion to an organizing principle, if not an actual theme.

It’s also the first Modest Mouse album to feature Johnny Marr, late of the Smiths, on guitar, replacing the retired Dann Gallucci. An interesting mix, considering that Mr. Marr is a full rock generation older than the rest of Modest Mouse. At the same time, the current album is of a piece with the platinum-selling 2004 release “Good News for People Who Love Bad News.” It was recorded at the same studio and arranged and mixed by the same producer, Dennis Herring, and of course, all the songs are by Mr. Brock.

New fans turned on to Modest Mouse via the runaway success of “Good News” will find a vital, energetic, intelligent and varied rock album in the current effort.

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