Thursday, March 08, 2007

Modest Mouse - We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank

With their previous album, Good News For People Who Love Bad News, Modest Mouse got their name out there more than they ever had before. Nevermind that they’ve been around for forever and a day…no one really cared about that. Hearing the yelping, fist-pumping, stomp-rock of “Float On” was enough for most people to declare their undying love for all things Mouse.
And why not? That song (along with “Ocean Breathes Salty”, “The View”, “Black Cadillacs”, and perhaps a couple others) was a perfect summer song…something that worked on mainstream radio (and late-night talk-show stages), yet was just different enough so that you could say things like, “Yeah, I listen to the radio from time to time…but I don’t like Kelly Clarkson or anything like that.”
But the album itself was not necessarily what you would call “radio friendly”. Along with those poppier songs, you got a steady dose of angry Pixies rock (“Bury Me With It”), plodding, horn-driven Waitsian funeral music (“The Devil’s Workday”), herky-jerky banjo-dirge (“Satin in a Coffin”), and other instances of strange music. If it weren’t for a massive single, there’s no way that album would’ve caught on like it did.
Of course, we were all waiting for their next album. What direction would they go in? Would they make an entire album of fist-pumping, “arena-ready” songs? Would they steer more towards their darker, odder side?
The answer came months before the album was even recorded, when the report came in that Johnny Marr (a member of British rock royalty) would be joining the band. Nevermind that Modest Mouse had always kind of been a “redneck-and-proud-of-it-but-not-in-a-Toby-Keith-kinda-way” band, and that throwing the guitarist for The Smiths in the mix might throw that off. More than anything it signaled a move towards a more straight-ahead rock sound…and that’s exactly what we got.
There’s still a moment or two of oddness on it…they didn’t completely get away from that side. “Parting of the Sensory” is Modest Mouse at their darkness, complete with hand claps, raspy voices in the background (think Nilsson’s “I’d Rather Be Dead”, but with crazy people instead of old people), and a military-esque, foot-rockin’ (but not in the happy way) breakdown to end it.
The rest of the album, however, is much what I expected…a straight-ahead rock album. Some songs, “Missed the Boat” in particular, could really be more accurately described as a pop song…just listen to the harmony and instrumentation in the chorus for proof.
There does seem to be more songs fitting the mold of the “Float On” in this bunch…high-energy rock songs with a catchy hook. “Dashboard” is in that group (released as the first single), as is “We’ve Got Everything” (this one actually feels more like “The View”, but that’s neither here nor there). “Steam Engenius”, with its funky guitar line, and “whoo-hoo whoo-hoo” in the chorus, is destined to be blasted out of many a car window this summer.
I really enjoyed “Spitting Venom”, but, at 8+ minutes, it seems to be a bit too long for its own good. The electric guitar line also seems to be a bit too close to “Trailer Trash”, but perhaps that’s just me.
All in all, I can say that I wasn’t necessarily surprised by the outcome of this album. There’s still a form of strangeness to some of the songs, so you can’t really say that they’ve gone all “radio rock”…I don’t think they’ll ever be able to be classified as that. This is, however, their most accessible album to date, and should win them more fans than their last album did. It’s an enjoyable album…nothing I would call spectacular, but it’s pretty solid. There’s not a single song on here that I skip, so that’s good.

Rating: 7.9

Essential Tracks: “Florida”, “We’ve Got Everything”, “Invisible”

Favorite Tracks: “Parting of the Sensory”, “People as Places as People”

Check out their website here

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Arcade Fire - Neon Bible

“Sophomore slump.”
It’s a phrase that seems to be used too much in music.
Make an album too much like your first one, and everyone hates it because you’re “afraid to try something different”.
Make an album too different and you’re “bucking against the popularity of your first album…only doing something different for the sake of being different”.
You really can’t win.
Except that you can.
The Arcade Fire prove this on their fantastic new album, Neon Bible.
Their first widely circulated release, Funeral, was an amazing orchestrated pop masterpiece, featuring instrumentation that is not necessarily synonymous with pop music. But they pulled it off in grand fashion.
How do you follow something that was so different yet so popular?
Stick with the same basic formula, but tweak it a little bit. That seems to be the thought process in recording this album. If you liked Funeral, chances are you’ll like this one. There aren’t a ton of surprises here…just a great collection of songs.
I will say this: this is a much better album than Funeral, and that’s saying something. The songs that are amazing on this album are better than the amazing songs on their last one.
“Intervention” is the easiest one to talk about first, seeing as how they’ve released it as their first single. It starts off with a huge pipe organ, accompanied by the strumming of a beat-up old guitar that seems to have made the recording by accident (but in a good way). The song takes a minute or so to take off, but from the beginning of the song you know that something is going to happen…the suspense can almost kill you. It gets kicked up a notch or two along the way, but, by the end they’re in full-fledged huge orchestral rock mode.
“Ocean of Noise” is another song that immediately jumps out. It’s a slow, almost sinister song that sounds as if it was recorded in a basement somewhere. A dark piano appears from time to time…just enough to let you know that it’s really there. A storm makes some noise in the background. As the song continues, more sounds and instruments are added. In about the third minute, it erupts into a psychedelic wall of sound (or, “Ocean of Noise”, if you will), complete with Spanish horns wailing away in the background. Just an amazing ending to a great song. I would have to say that it’s the best two minutes on the album.
“Black Wave/Bad Vibrations” starts as a seemingly happy-go-luck, chick fronted pop song. Well, that’s the “Black Wave” half. Halfway through, “Bad Vibrations” comes in, and it seems to be about the darkest thing on the album (but that may be because it’s paired with the sunniest sounding recording in the bunch).
The closer, “My Body is a Cage” follows about the same formula as “Ocean of Noise”…a dark, slow moving song that explodes into a darker, psychedelic wall of infinite noise (it can fill the entire room if you let it). It’s an almost surreal experience to listen to it…like you’ve been transported to another world.
No matter how many times I listen to this album, the term “dark” seems to come up a lot. I don’t know what it is, but there’s definitely an overarching feeling of dread and doom while listening to this album. But, at the same time, I can listen to this album on a nice warm day with the windows rolled down and still enjoy it. It’s odd, but, when you listen to it, it makes perfect sense. It has something to do with the production of it. It’s a muddy sound. I can’t describe it any further than to say that. Whatever they did, it works perfectly for the feel of this album.
Please, listen to this album. I don’t ask much of you all. Even if you didn’t get into Funeral that much, or never really saw what the fuss was about. Listen to this album at least 4 times. It’s darn near impossible to stop listening to once you start.

Rating: 9.4

Essential Tracks: “Black Mirror”, “(Antichrist Television Blues)”, “My Body is a Cage”

Favorite Tracks: “Intervention”, “Ocean of Noise”
Check out their website here