Modest Mouse, not so modest

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First Posted: 10/31/2014

The first three songs on the debut Modest Mouse full-length, “This Is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About” (recently reissued on vinyl by Glacial Pace/Fat Possum), offer a template for their entire 20 year career. “Dramamine” starts things off with busy drums and a bass riff nicked from an obscure Yes song, and opens up into echoed guitar lines, showing off the bands spacey, exploratory side. If it isn’t Pink Floyd for the nineties, it isn’t that far off. The second song, “Break Through,” is loud, almost dancey, built around sliding-pitched chords and octaves, and whips itself into frenzied climaxes. “Custom Concern,” an acoustic number, follows, and is surprisingly delicate and melodic considering what’s come before, with a pretty cello overdub driving the point home. That’s three distinct sides to Modest Mouse: the spacey, the frantic, and the surprisingly pretty. And if it’s not the entirety of what they’ve done since, I’d argue that it’s the entirety of what they’ve done really well.

Play any minute of “This Is a Long Drive, etc.” to a listener even passingly familiar with Modest Mouse’s subsequent major-label output and I’m willing to bet they’d have no trouble telling you who they’re listening to. “Novocaine Stain” is bouncier and more effervescent than anything they’d later attempt, and throughout there are longer instrumental sections than I think Epic Records would allow these days.

The novelist Jonathan Lethem wrote the following about being obsessed with a Talking Heads album: “At the peak…my identification was so complete that I might have wished to wear the album “Fear of Music” in place of my head so as to be more clearly seen by those around me.” When I discovered Modest Mouse as a teenager in post-industrial Pennsylvania, I could have said the same thing about “This Is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About.” In the decades since, I’ve fallen out of love with the band. But revisiting their first album on the occasion of it’s reissue, everything I identified with back then is still present. The obsession with things like interstates, strip malls and astrophysics. The lyrical openness (so rare now that most critically acclaimed rock music is aggressively obtuse and incomprehensible), which led equally to some great, insightful lines, and some embarrassingly adolescent navel-gazing. And most of all the sound of the band. From the start, Modest Mouse sounded like Modest Mouse. In a world where they’re a platinum selling band with hit singles, it’s hard to remember how odd and almost unprecedented they were in the mid-nineties.

If you break apart the different elements of their sound, this is music that shouldn’t work. Clean guitar lines that interlock with busy bass parts so that it sounds like they’re playing competing if complementary scales. Melodies based so heavily on the root note that it’s often unclear if they’re playing in major or minor key. A guitar attack that practically lives on the tremolo bar. And most of all, a singer who’s better described as a yelper, trying to hide a slight lisp and a very limited range with a weird rapid-fire delivery that owes as much to hip-hop as it does to rock. When Modest Mouse, especially the early Modest Mouse captured on “This Is a Long Drive…” launch into an extended instrumental bit, you don’t get the feeling that this is virtuoso musicians showing off their chops. You get the feeling that these are musical ideas that these guys discovered after long, painful, and atonal searching. Every bit of melodic beauty, and there is a ton of it in early Modest Mouse, sounds like a cavemen accidentally discovering fire, and then rediscovering it again and again at album length.