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Music Reviews

Screaming Females - Castle Talk
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Castle Talk
Don Giovanni
Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross - The Social Network [Original Soundtrack]
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The Social Network [Original Soundtrack]
The Null Corporation
Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest
Halcyon Digest
No Age - Everything in Between
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Everything in Between
Sub Pop
Robyn - Body Talk Pt. 1/ Body Talk Pt. 2
Body Talk Pt. 1/ Body Talk Pt. 2
The Walkmen - Lisbon
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Fat Possum
Modest Mouse
We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank

Rating: 6.8/10 ?

March 20, 2007
The last time around, with Good News for People Who Love Bad News - an album that managed to be widely praised in spite of being a right-angled departure from the monumental The Moon & Antarctica - Isaac Brock threw out a glossy curve ball. None of the tracks on that album could be considered all that ambitious, especially given Brock's past body of work, but nonetheless the album as a whole was enjoyable. Good News was kind of a sidestep in Modest Mouse's evolution, arriving at a point where its songs needn't be genre-bending or even all that exploratory, but simply needed to be solid while doing something different from what had come before them. It had taken four years for Good News to follow up Antarctica, and like a long overdue gift it wasn't really what anyone expected or necessarily even wanted, but, sure, we'd take it. The flash of greatness, after all, is often outshined by the glow of reliability.

Now, after the return of Jeremiah Green and the addition of Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank lands on a legion of Modest Mouse devotees like a Norman Rockwell painting in an avant garde gallery; it looks like a picture and hangs like a picture, but that doesn't mean it makes all that much sense in context. The idea that greatness is more fleeting than reliability does not equate to ambition being subordinate to repetitiveness, and the latter is primarily what We Were Dead is about. To be more specific, a disproportionate amount of the album's tracks sound like a commercialized knockoff of previous songs, past highlights revisited after a process of radio ready distillation.

Basically, this is just a weird record, made all the weirder by the fact that its worst track is placed in the pole position. Beginning with an idea scraped straight from Yann Tiersen's score for Amelie that quickly disintegrates into an ugly mess of barking vocals, toy piano twinkling, and sporadic snare hits, "March Into the Sea" can't wrap up fast enough. "Dashboard," the album's second track and first single, has already been for more spins than the village bicycle, and while it isn't ghastly it isn't quite on the money either, and ultimately it sounds like a failure to recreate the surprising workability of "Float On."

To be sure, nostalgists will hear flashes of the past throughout We Were Dead, but they aren't always all that exciting. The opening notes of "Fire It Up" are yanked from The Lonesome Crowded West and moments of the track's vocal cadence are dead ringers for the more memorable lines of Ugly Cassanova's "Things I Don't Remember" (I constantly catch myself singing along with the substitute line of "There was cum on the piano"). While "Fire It Up" might very well be the pinnacle of a lesser songwriter's career, it sounds as if Brock is just phoning it in.

Later, "Fly Trapped in a Jar" is a half-witted half-breed between the rambling, teeth-clenched rawness of the band's earlier work and the worst song Q and Not U ever wrote (believe it or not, the latter half is the compliment). At album's end, the closing pair of "People As Places As People" and "Invisible" are both, uhm, fine; neither one is trash but are equally far from memorable.

As disgruntled as I might be with not being blown away, We Were Dead isn't a complete loss. "Parting of the Sensory" is arguably the album's strongest cut; Brock's vocals are initially cradled by lightly strummed guitars, warmed by subtle cello tones and occasionally pierced with electronic flourishes. After a clement opening the track settles into a subdued rhythm of ebb and flow, eventually gaining enough momentum to crest, peaking with the nonsensical/anthemic lyrics of "some day you will die somehow and something's going to steal your carbon." Of course the track is followed up by the made-to-soundtrack-a-television-medical-drama quaintness of "Missed The Boat," which brings with it the requisite mention that the Shins' James Mercer contributed backing vocals to the album. But, whatever, "Parting of the Sensory" is strong enough to outweigh the limpness of "Missed The Boat," which itself is actually backed up by an extremely annoying "We've Got Everything." So much for balance.

Thankfully there are a couple of gems to be found on the album, not just one diamond, and the gravity of the big bangers saves it from being weightless feathery fluff. For all the lovers out there, "Little Motel" is We Were Dead's primary candidate for make-out mix tape cut, an airy vocal melody and even airier guitars primed for softly soundtracking tongue wrestling and lip sucking. A bit later "Spitting Venom" pairs plodding verses with the dynamics of punchy guitars and chill trumpeting, the track languidly fading out as a three minute jam.

Maybe expectations are simply unreasonably high for the outfit that gave us The Moon & Antarctica, and hopefully I'll be wrong on this, but if We Were Dead is any indication of Modest Mouse's battery life, I'd say it is either time for a serious recharge or time to turn out the lights. It isn't dead, but it's pretty weak. Perhaps through boredom, maturity, or both, the amplitude of the band's beautiful extremities - the raw spitting of "Shit Luck" and the softer drawn-out weirdness of "The Stars are Projectors" - seem to have been compressed to such a degree that, in retrospect, this album just sounds flat. Someone get Brian Deck on the phone before Isaac Brock winds up the faded, slothy, bloated Elvis of indie rock, a parody of himself phoning it in for drug money.

Reviewed by Clifton Gates
Currently sleeping on beaches in Costa Rica, Clifton Gates is an occasional contributor, editor, idea springboard and moral crutch to LAS magazine.

See other reviews by Clifton Gates



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