The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus


‘We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank’: mediocre Mouse

Modest Mouse has been around for more than a decade. They’re indie veterans, whatever that means.

Formed in Issaquah, Wash., in the early 1990s, Modest Mouse began as a trio driven by the songwriting talents of frontman Isaac Brock. The band practiced, at first, in a makeshift space near Brock’s mother’s trailer. A modest beginning, no doubt.

The band released its first full-length studio album, “This is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About,” in 1996.

Retrospectively, many critics consider this album as one of the most important indie rock albums of the 1990s. By this time, Modest Mouse had a sizeable following of dedicated listeners.

However, they didn’t achieve popular and commercial success until their 2004 album, “Good News for People Who Love Bad News.”

Okay, so a band’s commercial success sometimes makes fans cringe. I understand. It is unsettling when an underground favorite band becomes the property of popular culture, especially when that band is Modest Mouse.

I’ve been listening to this quirky little band since the sixth grade. That’s eight years, folks. Remember their song, “Float On”? Of course you do. It was everywhere, and everyone seemed to like it.

Even now, there are plenty of stale covers of this song on YouTube. There’s even a grotesque American Idol commercial pimping some new Ford car to the anthemic, “Alright/ already/ we’ll all float on,” while Idol contestants in faux-vintage attire and silly wigs march rigidly to the beat like they are going to burst into an indie version of “Thriller.”

Somehow, Modest Mouse weirdly became sort of popular. A ticket to their concerts jumped from $15 to $45. They no longer play small venues like the Ridglea Theater in Fort Worth. Nope, they have moved to larger, soulless locales like the Nokia Theater.

Now 16-year-olds suddenly decide that Modest Mouse is their favorite band because of one damn song. To me, it all seems like a sign of the apocalypse. But maybe I’m being overly dramatic. Let’s just say that Modest Mouse’s recent popularity is a bit annoying to longtime fans.

I’m not going to call Modest Mouse a sellout band. That’s simply not the case here. They didn’t decide to whore themselves out to the MTV crowd by showing up on “Total Request Live.” They didn’t pick up any gimmicks. They didn’t do anything to suggest that they were actively pursuing the popular music spotlight.

At worst, any commercial efforts made by Modest Mouse only seem like a way to make enough cash to live on. So far, the band has licensed two songs for advertisements, “Float On” and “Gravity Rides Everything,” which was used in a commercial for a Nissan van.

However, their recent financial success might have changed the music regardless of the band’s good intentions. It happens. When people and bands find comfort, sobriety and financial security, it seems inevitable that their art will dull- think Bob Dylan or Paul McCartney.

By settling into the “good life,” artists diminish the struggles that serve as the engine and the inspiration for art. So it goes.

With this in mind, the mediocrity of Modest Mouse’s new album, “We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank,” makes perfect sense. Their sound hasn’t changed drastically; it’s not like they are experimenting with Jamaican dub and an Indian tabla. The basic elements of Modest Mouse’s original sound are still present in the new album, but something just seems off.

The lyrics are clever but sometimes bland, vague or nonsensical. The guitar parts still vacillate between sharply strummed crunchy bounces to wandering slurs of slow countermelodies. However, the general sound lacks the occasional cacophony found in earlier albums. The sound is cleaner, more refined.

The most obvious difference between “We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank” and their definitive records like “The Moon” and “Antarctica or This is a Long Drive for Someone With Nothing to Think About” is the emphasis on drum and bass, distinct choruses and clean production quality.

On songs like “Dashboard” and “Fly Trapped in a Jar,” the drums and bass guitar thump steadily like a club beat while the guitars pluck and scratch out simple, jittery melodies.

Brock still maintains his emotive yelps and warbles that have defined his peculiar singing style. However, the lyrics seem to lack genuine cleverness and sincerity. Brock occasionally resorts to lazy phrases like “fire it up” and “I couldn’t remember if I tried.”

Too many otherwise good songs rely heavily on repetitive phrases. In “Spitting Venom,” for example, Brock consistently sings, “Let it drop/ let it all drop/ let it all drop/ oh let it all fall off.” The vagueness seems to keep the songs from significantly affecting the listener. Sure, you can nod your head to the music, but the lyrics are sometimes so generic that they are almost unnecessary. They are taking up space without really communicating.

Although some of the songs sound like Brock wrote them while he was on vacation, there are some significant additions to the catalogue. “Parting Out the Sensory,” for example, starts out with a sweetly despondent acoustic guitar melody and richly forlorn vocals but then erupts into moments of enraged questioning.

The song then rolls into a stomping climax while Brock sings the fatalistic line, “Someday you will die somehow/ and something’s gonna steal your carbon,” working it into a chant while strings and the drums, foot stomps and handclaps crescendo into a driving and powerful conclusion.

Also, the addition of former Smith’s guitarist, Johnny Marr, to the band has a subtle yet profound effect. Isaac Brock, the creative force behind Modest Mouse, contacted Marr without definite plans toward incorporating him into the band.

However, one thing led to another, and Marr ended up writing songs with Brock for the new album. Now Marr is touring with the band, lending his particular guitar panache a la ’80s to the mix.

James Mercer from The Shins contributes his popish vocals to a few songs like “We’ve Got Everything,” adding an interesting contrast of polished high-pitched vocals to Brock’s coarse style.

Although the album may not be as brilliant as “The Moon and Antarctica,” it’s not meaningless. The slight stylistic shifts indicate that this band is not finished making interesting music.

The incorporation of Marr and Mercer is evidence of Modest Mouse’s willingness to expand musically while still retaining the elements of their original, beloved sound. Beyond the collaborations and minor shifts in style, “We Were Dead before the Ship Even Sank” is just a moment of repose and transition for Modest Mouse, an interlude of mediocrity in an otherwise brilliant career.

I do not doubt that their music is progressing towards another fantastic album.

We, the fans, just have to wait a bit longer.

More to Discover