- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Modest Mouse
No One’s First and You’re Next

Of all the indie rock bands ever to embrace and be embraced by mainstream success, Modest Mouse may be the truest to its own roots. This may be in part because Modest Mouse hasn’t spawned a school of rock as such — there’s no direct line between them and the contemporary indie rock mainstream. Bands like Dirty Projectors and Architecture in Helsinki have a certain Modest Mouse-ness, but they can’t be called outright followers.

Or maybe the indie mainstream has deserted Modest Mouse. Last week National Public Radio’s “All Songs Considered” podcast released their listener poll of the best music of the first half of this year. The results are probably a reliable index of what is shuffling on the iPod of the typical college-educated urban hipster, and the unsurprising news is that soft and palatable are in; twitchy and challenging are out. Easy listening has traded in its polyester leisure suit for oversized sunglasses and skinny jeans, but the essential banality of the genre abides.

There’s nothing easy about listening to Modest Mouse, thanks to frontman Isaac Brock’s gritty, serrated singing style and distinctive vocal rhythms. He sings ugly, but cool ugly, giving Modest Mouse songs a certain unmistakability. The core personnel has remained consistent since the band’s founding in 1993. The addition of ex-Smith’s guitarist Johnny Marr in 2006 added a new edge to their sound, but didn’t exactly push them into the direction of flavorless corporate banality.

“No One’s First and You’re Next” is more evidence that Modest Mouse is basically an indie band that just happens to be signed to a major label. This new EP collects b-sides and rarities from 7-inch vinyl singles sold in limited editions over the last couple of years, with one cut — “I’ve Got It All (Most)” — dating back to 2004.

“Satellite Skin” is a new song, released as a single this year. It grinds and churns in typical Modest Mouse fashion. Drums take a back seat as distorted guitars beat out steady rhythm like a fuzzbox metronome.

The “Whale Song” has the feel of a minor rock epic, opening with a funky low-key bass accentuated by nervous guitar trills before giving way to a muted but blues-inflected riff that builds into a solo. It’s clearly b-side territory — a full three minutes go by before the lyrics kick in.

It’s easy to see why the track “King Rat” didn’t quite fit into the scheme for the 2007 album, “We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank.” It’s orchestrated with a mix of amplified banjo, an elephant-like trumpet blast and a sonorous cello. The accelerating rhythms and shouted vocal lines give it added intensity. A video for the track, directed by since-deceased actor Heath Ledger, is expected to be released at the same time as the EP.

For the casual Modest Mouse fan (the kind that doesn’t collect 7-inch vinyl singles at live shows), “No One’s First and You’re Next” gives more than scraps from the cutting room floor.

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