The latest stop on the Fluffhouse's ventures into current American indie is Modest Mouse. Yet another distinctive-sounding band with songwriting flair is always a good thing. It's their casual funkiness that distinguishes their sound from neo-psychedelic contemporaries like Flaming Lips, or from British urban melancholists like Radiohead. Also unmistakable is Isaac Brock's clipped, shouty voice, which often gives the effect of being out of breath from overexcitement. Not quite as insane as original Mercury Rev singer David Baker, but still punkish.
It's the songwriting quality that will persuade me to delve backwards in Modest Mouse's catalogue to "Moon and Antarctica". The first few songs are top-notch, starting with the melancholy see-sawing tune and gorgeous Mellotron harmonies of "The World at Large". No less powerful is "Float On", a good, solid anthemic single with a neat lyrical idea. Those one-note guitar pings littering many of the tracks give them an "indie" prettiness, but once you can penetrate Brock's grunting and wailing, you hear the variety of colours they sustain over the album. Including an active, never-complacent rhythm section.
Tom Waits is also an obvious influence, mildly so for the clockwork grunting of "Dance Hall", but much more on "The Devil's Workday", with its swampy banjo and gruff voice (as in, the sort that can be imitated by going "gruff, gruff, gruff"). Colourful enough, but far too blatant. They're more engaging when they sound like themselves. Like on "Bukowski" which deftly combines a patiently insistent refrain of "who'd wanna be such an asshole" with banjo-and-accordion jauntiness. "Blame it on the Tetons" has a lovely casual folky melancholy, decorated with some lyrical fiddling.
A lot of it has the quality of production you'd expect from Dave Fridmann. So quite appropriately, Fridmann himself and his Flaming Lips chums are drafted in to buff up the strong finale "The Good Times are Killing Me". It's gratuitously peppered with those distinctive "Soft Bulletin" orchestral keyboards. After a couple of less interesting tracks, this is a nice sing-along way to finish the album, an airy partner to "Float On".
August 12, 2005