Modest Mouse Dissected, Labeled

A live performance of We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank verifies singer Isaac Brock's commitment to everything in moderation.

“Due to the nature of moshing/crowd surfing and the injuries that can result, it’s recommended that patrons refrain from such activity.”

Moshing and crowd surfing? At a Modest Mouse show? What about punching each other in the face? Or a Third World-style soccer game trampling?

Surely we should refrain from that behavior as well, but we won’t. Not tonight. Modest Mouse is in the house, and the eleven-year-old Little Emo Band That Could has received a wicked new blood transfusion. Lead singer Isaac Brock has kicked most of his drug and booze problems. A fresh dose of the Smiths’ Johnny Marr now holds down the lead guitar slot. Two drummers back them with a Van Halen-like superstructure of gear. And the Pacific Northwest band’s core crowd of pale thirty-year-old cutters must mingle with an entirely new contingent of sixteen-year-old girls with long, luxurious hair and baked biscuits.

A Mouse show was once a mope-a-thon; now, standing ten feet in front of the stage feels like a pervy afternoon on MySpace. Here, a piece of jailbait in spaghetti straps swills from a bottle of Captain Morgan spiced rum. There, another sparks a bowl from her $50 glass pipe while a third spelunks down a skater boi’s throat in search of tonsil. Over the next hour, the teenyboppers say “Sorry” as they throw vicious elbows to the ribs, pogo like lusty cockroaches on a pile of guano, and even start a fratboy mosh pit to “Float On.” Ye gods.

It’s enough to make longtime Modest Mouse fans gobble a handful of Xanax, but we’re all choosing life tonight, because Brock has hit a new, very late stride in his career. The band’s rocking spring album We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank astonishingly debuted at number one, and its ballsy, turgid live show exists light-years away from the whiskey-dick mess of past performances.

The last time I saw the band — 2002 at the Santa Barbara Bowl — it lived up to its spotty reputation with one of the worst shows I’ve ever witnessed. A beer-bloated, pissy Brock bitched about the sun setting in his eyes as he went through the motions of 2000’s major-label debut, The Moon and Antarctica. His cracked pipes are an acquired taste to begin with, and in 2002 they appeared broken. The man only has two singing voices: a warbly emo talk and a vicious snarl-bark. Neither worked for him that afternoon. Modest Mouse was a band in decline.

Following that tour, the band tried to record 2004’s Good News for People Who Love Bad News. But drummer Jeremiah Green had a mental breakdown during the recording and quit amid Brock’s classic rock-star assholery. Brock has always been a trouble magnet, getting accused of date rape (later retracted), getting butt-faced on substances, getting his jaw broken.

“There’s been a lot of drug abuse,” Brock told The Onion, which does non-joke music coverage. “Inhalants and meth were probably the two things that totally fucking screwed me out of some brain cells.”

Good News Version 1.0 went nowhere and the end appeared nigh. “I thought we just didn’t know how to do it,” Brock said. The band had hit rock bottom. In came a new drummer, producer, and location, and Brock forced out Version 2.0 in a month. He challenged himself to find a bright side to hitting rock bottom and found it with the mainstream hit “Float On,” with its uncharacteristically optimistic chorus We’ll all float on okay. It worked. Good News … went platinum, and a new generation of fresh-faced polyps glommed onto the Modest coral reef. OG fans were pissed, but Brock doesn’t care.

Right out of the gate Wednesday night, a thinner, more muscular Brock cleared the air about what they were doing these days: “We’re a rock band,” he simply said, then detonated the old school “Custom Concern” with his twin drum kits. Brock now enunciates and punctuates. He plays guitar solos and works his pedals with precision. His eyes are clear, and even at the end of this North American tour, his characteristic bark still has plenty of bite.

Rock is Brock’s new antidrug, and when he’s mainlining it, the band can outlast even the newbies physically hurling themselves at the stage.


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