I can’t believe it’s actually here. When I sat down, plugged in my headphones, and closed my eyes for my first listen to Modest Mouse’s new album, Strangers To Ourselves, I thought I was dreaming. After eight years of speculation, lots of weird rumors and a few lineup changes mixed in, one of indie rock’s most celebrated band is finally back with new studio material, and not a moment too soon.
For a time, it seemed like band leader Isaac Brock had decided to follow the Harper Lee guide to releasing new stuff. Not six months ago I got on Reddit’s Modest Mouse fan community and posted a surly reply to some poster who was trying to guess when Modest Mouse’s new album was going to be released. Basically, in my grumpy Reddit comment, I complained that I had long lost any hope that a new album would ever see the light of day. Sure, there were rumors, like that of the strange collaboration between Isaac Brock and Big Boi, and, yeah, they had played a bunch of new stuff in concert. After eight years, though, as 2007’s We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank sailed further and further into the past and as their tour stops became more and more fleeting, it seemed that any new Modest Mouse album was a dream destined to be unrealized.
It didn’t help that Eric Judy, Modest Mouse’s original bassist, co-founding member, and heart and soul, up and left in late-2011, leaving the band without a bassist (they finally settled on Russell Higbee, formerly of Man Man). They also lost Johnny Marr, the famed former guitarist for The Smiths, who left after We Were Dead; they replaced him with Jim Fairchild. They also added Lisa Molinaro of Talkdemonic and replaced a drummer, and it was this turnover that contributed to the gap between albums (many fans are still holding out the probably futile hope that Judy rejoins the band one day).
Oh, they’ve been active in that time. They’ve still toured and they’ve still done the music festival thing*. They even broke out new songs here and there while out on tour (we’ll get to that later). So it was frustrating for fans to see them out there doing stuff and playing live while not giving their hungry fans a new album to chomp on.
*One of those festivals was Coachella in 2013. Modest Mouse’s performance on the first weekend of the festival that year has become semi-notorious because of what an utter train wreck it was. I had the misfortune of attending that disaster in person, one of the most crushing disappointments of my life as a music fan.
About three songs in, it was clear that Isaac Brock was drunk and/or high off his ass and the set devolved quickly. The sound was incredibly poor, Isaac spent a good five minutes rambling some nonsensical bullshit, then sang “Hakuna Matata” for some reason, and it all ended with the band going over their set time, resulting in them having their sound cut off right in the middle of “Float On”. For masochists, here’s the ugly affair in its entirety.
Well, it’s here, and I’ve been playing the damn thing on a non-stop loop since last Monday. Before I give my overall opinion of Strangers To Ourselves, here are some stray thoughts and/or comments that I had upon my first week of listens.
—First things first. I’ve been waiting for “Pups To Dust” for four years. Four long years. Back in April or May of 2011, the Portland, Oregon-based documentary series called Don’t Move Here (which focuses mainly on the indie music scene in and around Portland) did a ten minute tour of Isaac Brock’s house. The short video is now somewhat famous among Mouse fans, and in it we learn, among other things, that Brock is a huge fan of taxidermy. At the end, Brock and other members of the band rip into a brand, spanking new song, which unfortunately fades out after about two minutes.
With its catchy hook and upbeat, toe-tappable sound, fans took to it quickly. Personally, I loved it. The song wasn’t named in the video, so fans simply dubbed it “Give It Enough”, and the legend began.
For fans, this song became as elusive as the Loch Ness Monster. After the documentary aired, not a shred was heard or seen of the song from that point on. Not even a freaking rumor. Even as the band was breaking out new material in concert, there wasn’t a trace of “Give It Enough” anywhere. After four years, many began to lose hope that it would ever see the light of day, with more than a few pointing out that the since-departed Eric Judy was on bass in the video, so thus it may have been thrown in the dustbin.
Alas, our own personal Sasquatch was found: “Give It Enough” appears on Strangers to Ourselves as “Pups to Dust”. The lyrics have changed a bit and the tempo is sped up, but it’s the same song, and it’s glorious. Many fans are already listing it as among the best songs on the album, and it was definitely worth the wait.
For those who have never seen it, here is “Pups to Dust” in its original incarnation (with Eric Judy!):
—My personal favorite song on Strangers is a song that sounds like one of Aesop’s Fables gone horribly awry. “The Tortoise and the Tourist” is an angsty track that harkens back to Moon and Antarctica, and is the darkest on the album. It continues the album’s general theme of man’s destructive relationship with nature and is easily the most cynical of them all. That’s just the ways I likes it.
Listening to it the first time, I was immediately reminded of “The Stars are Projectors”, which, not coincidentally, is my favorite Moon and Antarctica song. Maybe it says something about me that my favorite track is one so clearly reminiscent of the old days and not one more fresh-sounding (must be the hipster in me), but I don’t think it’s a bad thing when a band, while continuing to evolve and experiment and generally leaving the past behind (as Modest Mouse generally does in this album) still offers up a track or two that reminds fans why they started listening in the first place.
—Any hardcore Modest Mouse fan is already familiar with much of the material on Strangers already. As mentioned before, the band has been breaking out new material in their concerts since 2011, and eight of the fifteen songs on the album have already been played live in that time frame at one point or another (that doesn’t include “Pups to Dust”). “Lampshades on Fire” is the oldest and most frequently-played of the bunch, having been initially broken out way back in May of 2011, and having been played a whopping 33 times in concert before the album even came out. Makes sense that it turned into the new album’s first single, I guess. It is pretty catchy.
I like to think that I have some kind of fanboy bragging rights for some of these songs, as I was in attendance at shows where a few of these songs first were broken out for the first time ever. In 2012, I was there when Modest Mouse played at Stanford’s Frost Amphitheater and debuted “Sugar Boats” (it was originally called “Heart of Mine”, according to the taped set list at the show).* They also played “Ansel” for only the second time ever.
*This show was probably the only time in my post-age-21 life that I’ve endured an entire concert stone cold sober. Stanford was re-opening the famed Frost Amphitheater after like a two-decade hiatus, and the venue was completely dry and (officially) smoke-free. Of course, that didn’t stop Isaac Brock from rolling onstage with a cigarette in hand, drinking something that most assuredly wasn’t water from a red plastic cup. For the record, the jam during “Breakthrough” at this show stands as one of the most amazing moments of any concert I’ve ever been to.
I was also at Fox Theater in Oakland in April of 2013, when they played “Be Brave” and “Shit in Your Cut” for the first time ever to an audience. That show was devoid of the usual energy the band takes with them onstage and was a disappointment, but it was miles better than the train wreck that transpired at Coachella two days later.
I distinctly remember, for whatever reason, Isaac Brock not playing the distinctive guitar riff of “Shit in Your Cut” at that show, instead merely singing vocals and not playing any instrument at all. It’s the only time I’ve ever seen Modest Mouse play a song where Isaac wasn’t playing something, and I remember being confused and scared (and drunk, definitely drunk).
For the record, the list of songs from Strangers that debuted live before the album came out is “Lampshades on Fire”, “Shit in Your Cut”, “Ansel”, “Pistol”, “Coyotes”, “Sugar Boats”, and “Be Brave”. “God is an Indian and You’re an Asshole” was teased at one show last year as a segue into “Dark Center of the Universe”, so I guess we’ll count that, too. So, along with “Pups to Dust”, that’s nine of the fifteen tracks that were already heard, in some form, before the album was released (or leaked, whatever). Yes, I typed that list by heart, and yes, I am an irredeemable dweeb. Do I get Modest Mouse nerd street cred for knowing all that?
—Here’s a very early version of “Ansel” from that Stanford show:
I loved “Ansel” when I first heard it at that venue, and the studio version lives up to my early expectations. The album version is basically the same as the early live version, with some added lyrics at the very end. The song is about the death of Isaac’s brother in a climbing accident and contains some of the most poignant lyrics in the band’s history (which is really saying something). “The last time that you get to see another soul/No, you never get to know/No, you just don’t know.” C’mon, try not to shed a tear at that.
—I’m forming a higher opinion of “Pistol” with each passing day just due to the amount of hate it’s getting from fans, and the contrarian in me is eating it up. Without a doubt, “Pistol” is the most un-Modest Mouse song to ever grace one of their albums. It’s a (clearly intentionally) trashy dance number that contains the most overtly sexual lyrics in the band’s long history. I’m guessing Brock intended it as a send up of trash club music, but if that’s not the case, I don’t know what the hell is going on with “Pistol”, and I’m clearly not the only one.
Fans online are just demolishing it, and one published album review (that otherwise praised the album) called the song a disaster. It’s definitely a shocker when heard for the first time, and I could do without whatever that is distorting Isaac’s voice, but I don’t hate it. I’d rank it low on the list of my favorite songs from Strangers, but I’m not one of the legions of fans pissing on it. It’s different, and credit the band for trying something new. Maybe it doesn’t work entirely, but I’d rather that they try something like this and swing and miss than regurgitate “Dashboard” over and over again.
—My least favorite song on Strangers is “Wicked Campaign”, which begins like a bad Kings of Leon knockoff and ends like milquetoast background music for an airline commercial. It’s not terrible, but it’s pretty weaksauce for a group that made its name with bristling vocals and high-pitched, energy-packed guitar riffs and jams. And James Mercer, I love ya, and I especially love Broken Bells, but stay off my Modest Mouse albums.
—One new song that popped up in concert during the band’s album hiatus that wasn’t included on Strangers to Ourselves was something called “Poison the Well”, a rocker that sounds straight out of We Were Dead that was played roughly a dozen times from 2011 to 2012. There was a lot of speculation that it would show up on Strangers, but it’s curiously missing. Isaac Brock has stated in recent interviews that there is still a ton of material that has been recorded for the next album, which they’re apparently going to release very soon (yeah, I’ll believe that when I see it). Maybe “Poison the Well” is included in that, or maybe it was scrapped or is being reworked. In any event, here is the song, for the curious. It’s not half-bad.
I think it was fair to be completely skeptical of Strangers To Ourselves after the long layoff and especially after Eric Judy called it quits. However, I have to say that I’m completely satisfied with this effort, and as a hardcore fan of this band for years now, I consider myself pretty hard to please. Isaac Brock has stated in interviews that he took so much time putting the album together because he didn’t want to rush out a subpar work, saying releasing an album “isn’t a race”. Better to take your time and perfect a record than paste together a mediocre piece of crap.
If that’s the case it certainly paid off. The album flows well and contains just the right combination of loud, high-energy songs (the Mouse’s trademark), with slower, more deliberate stuff like “Coyotes”. This album definitely has a latter-day Modest Mouse sound, so it certainly won’t appease that subsection of fans who refuse to acknowledge anything from Good News for People Who Love Bad News on (you know who you are). In fact, “Lampshades on Fire”, “The Ground Walks, With Time in a Box”, and “Be Brave” all sound like they came straight out of Good News.
For those fans who have the ability to recognize the post-Lonesome Crowded West, lo-fi days, though, I think there’s a whole lot to like here. All of Brock’s trademark wordplay is back (“Honest to God/I was honest as hell”), and a lot of the songs just flat out rock. I absolutely can’t wait to see how awesome “Tortoise and the Tourist” will be when the band plays it live.
I once quipped (again, on Reddit) that this album should have been titled “It’s Been a Long Time Coming, but Not Soon Enough”. I’m not sure that makes a whole hell of a lot of sense, but the bottom line is Strangers To Ourselves has proven to be worth the wait and it lives up to the lofty standards that this band, considered one of the godfathers of indie music, has set for itself.
And if that isn’t happy enough news for you, it looks like we won’t have to wait another eight years for their next one.