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Modest Mouse

+ {Ugly Casanova}

By and large, MODEST MOUSE is/are the vehicle for singer/songwriter/guitarist Isaac Brock who, as a boy, was raised under the auspices of a religious sect and, in turn, a hippie commune. Moving from Montana to Issaquah, via Washington D.C., the year 1993 was also significant in that Isaac started to rehearse and experiment with music, in the meantime keeping down jobs as a meat truck cleaner and nude model.
After magnum practice sessions within his confined space/living quarters called “the Shed” (an actual shed next to his mother and step-father’s trailer park home), Brock recorded and released a handful of limited-edition cassettes, two of which were distributed at the time: TUBE-FRUIT, ALL SMILES AND CHOCOLATES {*4} – with musicians Danny Gallucci and Sam Jayne in tow – and UNCLE BUNNY FACES {*4} – significantly augmented by official MM alumni Eric Judy (bass) and Jeremy Green (drums); a solo Isaac/MODEST MOUSE completed two further cassettes: A MOUTHFUL OF LOST THOUGHTS (1994) {*4} and SAD SAPPY SUCKER (CHOCKIN’ ON A MOUTHFUL OF LOST THOUGHTS (1994) {*5}.
Roping in bassist John Wickhart and aforementioned guitarist Dann Gallucci, Isaac and Jeremy entered the dark and mysterious circle of Calvin Johnson (at K Records) in 1994, cutting their first bona fide single, `Blue Cadet-3, Do You Connect?’. A more settled and almost permanent line-up of Brock, Judy and Green would come up with the solution of their growing isolation and emotional values on debut album proper, THIS IS A LONG DRIVE FOR SOMEONE WITH NOTHING TO THINK ABOUT (1996) {*7}. Interesting in the fact that the double-set was engineered by a certain blues guitarist Steve Wold (aka SEASICK STEVE), the driving and lovelorn aspect of songs such as `Dramamine’, `Head South’ and `Custom Concern’ were very much in the mould of The ONLY ONES or MERCURY REV.
Whether categorised as a mini-set with bonus live tracks (recorded incidentally in Sunburst, Montana) or a bone fide album clocking in at 55 minutes, INTERSTATE 8 (1996) {*6}, was another record to grace the presence of Wold. Highlighting a piece, `Sleepwalking (Couples Only Dance Prom Night)’, incorporating Santo & Johnny’s timeless melody `Sleepwalk’ and an excellent title track, it mattered nought to fresh fans who were beginning to cotton-on to Brock’s religious motifs and hidden agenda.
With all and sundry taking their opportunity to issue the odd piece of vinyl by the trio (K Records more or less winning out on the essential `The Fruit That Ate Itself’ EP), it was the superior THE LONESOME CROWDED WEST (1997) {*8} follow-up that was the Camembert among the Cheddar. It contained the fabulous `Heart Cooks Brain’, a song for which the term “slacker” could’ve been invented. The track had all the ingredients to become a generation-X anthem, with kooky scratching, lo-fi guitars, SLINT-like vocals, chicken noises and the lyrics: “I’m on my way to God knows, I don’t care / In this place that I call home, the hours go fast and the days go so slow”. Certain tracks such as the 10-minute `Truckers Atlas’ rambled on in certain places and Johnson’s deliberately messy co-production did the band plenty favours, but Matador Records gave it a shot in Britain; check out `Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine’ and `Shit Luck’.
Brock and chums returned in 2000, issuing their major Epic label debut THE MOON & ANTARCTICA {*7}, a wayward mix of downbeat, spacy lo-fi, jinxed-up no wave; PIXIES show their looming influence as ever. Light rock/pop songs such as `Gravity Rides Everything’ and the immensely enjoyable `Wild Pack Of Family Dogs’ were immediate highlights. Brock once again reminded us of how unique his voice was, because, like Stipe and Corgan, there was no denying that he sounded like no-one else, with his trademark abrasive, broken-down lisp.
The group also issued two previously unreleased sets; 2000’s B-side and rarity collection BUILDING NOTHING OUT OF SOMETHING {*6}, and a re-vamped version of the almost “lost” album SAD SAPPY SUCKER (2001) {*5}; the latter was shelved and thought to have been destroyed. It played like Calvin Johnson’s previous BECK effort, `One Foot In The Grave’, a tad ramshackle with coughs and background noises. It also featured the ultra-rare 7-inch single from ’97, `Worms Vs. Birds’, and a collection of Brock’s answer-phone songs.
But if his genius hadn’t yet been fully realized then the delivery of 2002’s SHARPEN YOUR TEETH {*8} set, under the bizarre UGLY CASANOVA moniker (a moniker Isaac had used back on 1997’s “White” EP), then all hope was lost. Issued to some critical acclaim, Brock insisted that the songs on the album were derived from a bunch of tapes left at Sub Pop’s headquarters by a crazed MODEST MOUSE fan named Edgar Graham. A likely story indeed! It was, in fact, the work of Brock, plus musicians Tim Rutili (of RED RED MEAT and CALIFONE), Pall Jenkins (from BLACK HEART PROCESSION) and post-rock producer Brian Deck (TORTOISE, SEA AND CAKE). A soft, gliding addition to the alt-country hall of fame, the set shone with ballads from a nowhere place, where the roads were dusty and every day was like a Sunday. `Cat Faces’, `Pacifico’ and `So Long To The Holidays’ displayed moments of brilliance, but its `Hotcha Girls’, with its catchy acoustic guitar riff, building orchestral movement and psychedelic click-track beats, that made it one of the most uplifting and mournful songs of Brock’s career.
After making the inevitable transition fully from Matador to Epic (UK-wise), MM’s creative schedule was complicated with the nervous breakdown/health problems of drummer Green, who quit the band in 2003. Replacements were found in Benjamin Weikel (of The HELIO SEQUENCE) and the returning Gallucci (from MURDER CITY DEVILS), both of whom played on the long-awaited GOOD NEWS FOR PEOPLE WHO LOVE BAD NEWS (2004) {*9}; Tom Peloso played stand-up bass and fiddle. The real scoop was the record’s breakthrough into the Top 20 (UK Top 40), even more surprising given its rambunctious, schizoid sprawl through recent and not so recent rock history: the awkward groove of TALKING HEADS, the sepulchral rasp of a TOM WAITS (on `This Devil’s Workday’) and petulant outbursts of The FLAMING LIPS – the latter adding further instrumentation. It’d been a decade since MODEST MOUSE had promised great things and, now with such armoury like `Float On’ (a minor hit), `Bury Me With It’, `The World At Large’, `Satin In A Coffin’ and `One Chance’, they’d looked to have finally some of age.
With Jeremiah back on the scene and former SMITHS icon JOHNNY MARR and drummer Joe Plummer (ex-BLACK HEART PROCESSION) waiting in the wings, the ‘Mouse left their er… modesty behind with album number five, WE WERE DEAD BEFORE THE SHIP EVEN SANK (2007) {*7}. Scaling the charts in its first week (only Top 50 in the UK), the MODEST MOUSE sextet were now the missing link between The CURE and the ‘Lips; `March Of The Sea’, `Dashboard’ and `We’ve Got Everything’, giving the maniacal Brock and his sea shanty concept another dimension to his already comic-strip laugh.
A studio hiatus ensued for the next several years; MARR enjoying his post-MM period as a solo artist and a brief member of The CRIBS. His long overdue replacement, Jim Fairchild was chosen in 2009, while Plummer and, in turn, Eric Judy, were seeking other opportunities elsewhere; bassist Russell Higbee and strings/keyboardist Lisa Molinaro were in place by 2012.
With a couple of taster singles under preview (`Lampshades On Fire’ and `The Ground Walks, With Time In A Box’), March 2015 finally yielded that elusive sixth set, the Top 3 STRANGERS TO OURSELVES {*7}. Taking risks beyond their usual loopy boundaries, the off-kilter hip hop rant of `Pistol (A Cunanan, Miami, FL. 1996)’ upset the apple cart slightly, but it was in the country-calypso of `Ansel’, the ARCADE FIRE-esque `The Best Room’, `Shit In Your Cut’ and opening the title track that were most compelling.
© MC Strong 2003-2006/GRD-AS // rev-up MCS Mar2015

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