Perhaps the greatest thing about Modest Mouse -- and this has been blatantly clear since The Moon and Antartica -- is that you will never be able to complain that you’ve heard it before; not from this band, and certainly not from anyone else. Even though the band has sold more than a million records, recruited a former Smith, and has become an indie reference point for even the most mainstream of the mainstream, you can always count on Isaac Brock to baffle you with his constant left turns, bizarre arrangements and yet consistently memorable material.
At the root, Modest Mouse has always had its roots in the rich tradition of American indie rock: equals parts punk rock chest-beating, country-fried hooks, post-punk angularity and alternating moments of sarcasm and sincerity. The past five records have managed to create an encompassing catalogue of these sounds, never favoring one over the other, and often finding a way to elegantly combine them in each song. Like many of their peers -- particular their kindred spirits in Built to Spill -- it seems that they would forever be relegated to critical acclaim and quiet recognition, but Good News for People Who Love Bad News changed all that.
Now, on the heels of that 2004 breakthrough, the band has opted not for another sparkling single, but instead dug even deeper into that bag of sounds. Even the addition of a legend like Johnny Marr hasn’t affected the band’s disorienting and mesmerizing sound. His presence is certainly felt, particularly on the narrow bridges which populate the many tracks on We Were Dead: the arena-filling solo in “Fire It Up”; the bombast of “Parting of the Sensory”; or the ringing notes which kick off “Little Motel.” Smiths fans will find the most comfort in “People as Places as People” and won’t mind that their celibate Englishman has been replaced with a slightly ornery Midwesterner.
Granted, the first single, “Dashboard,” with its heavy ska base and guitar bravado has the kind of easily accessible hooks and sing-along quality that engendered so much love for “Float On,” and despite the fact that people might not find this as outright strange as Lonesome Crowded West, the slightly off-kilter melodic sense is still intact and wonderfully so. Compared to Good News, the album is certainly denser, stranger and less immediately inviting to traditional rock fans.
But that might be because following up a successful album is a tricky thing, particularly for an established act; some bands aim squarely at their roots, often purposely alienating the mainstream audience they’ve built (Green Day’s Insomniac, the Offspring’s Ixnay) and others cater even more forcefully towards their new fans (Fall Out Boy’s Infinity on High) but finding a balance -- particularly when you have the kind of expansive, under-the-radar catalogue of Modest Mouse -- is a real challenge.
Thankfully, the band has found that precarious middle ground; We Were Dead is certainly closer to the band’s drunken roots, but is among the most satisfying and inviting records they’ve made. Like a few other major label acts (the Flaming Lips, Mr. Bungle) Modest Mouse has always managed to succeed by bringing traditional music fans closer to their sound, rather than diluting their bite in the hopes of scoring another hit.