The Over/Under: Modest Mouse

MODEST-MOUSEPlatinum-selling. Grammy-nominated. These are not usually adjectives attached to indie/punk/alternative bands. Not good ones anyway. I thought Modest Mouse would go far, but if you had asked me in 1998 if the band was going to have its songs performed on a show like American Idol, I probably wouldn’t have dignified such a ridiculous question with a response. The band has had a slow—if, at times, awkward—welcoming into the mainstream, but it is definitely there now, whether you have come to terms with that or not. But really, who would have imagined Modest Mouse was going to reach this level of ubiquity in pop culture? Hearing its songs on corporate radio was a surprise. The first time I heard the band on TV, I admit that I reflexively jumped out of my chair, yelling in disbelief. These days, you can find Modest Mouse songs in the background of national sports broadcasts, political talk shows, video games and over the sound system at Starbucks. I’ve seen the band about 10 times in the past 11 years, from warehouses in the middle of nowhere to the Hollywood Bowl. I was at that notorious 2002 show in Oklahoma City where Isaac Brock just started slicing his arm open and bleeding all over the stage. For many years, the band had been on the brink of self-destruction with numerous run-ins with the law and struggles with substance abuse. It is only for the past two albums that Modest Mouse seemed to mellow out a bit and give the impression it is in it for the long haul. And the band is only getting bigger. Now that Brock and Co. have cleaned up their act, made it big and are comfortably settling down with their families, is the music suffering? Hit the jump to find out the five most overrated and the five most underrated Modest Mouse songs.

:: The Five Most Overrated Modest Mouse Songs
1. “Dashboard” (2007)
This is one of the We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank tracks to come out of the initial jam sessions with Johnny Marr. It’s certainly got a hook, but what’s with the lyrics about watching TV? (“I was patiently erasing and recording the wrong episodes after you had proved my point wrong/It wasn’t like I let it go.”) Brock is singing about vengefully deleting someone’s DVR? What? Hard to believe these lines are coming from the same guy who wrote 2000’s “3rd Planet.” Please get out of the house, Isaac. You are running out of material if you are writing songs about watching TV.

2. “Cowboy Dan” (1997)
Crowd favorite and, until recently, a live staple. People love to sing along to this one. Don’t shoot me; it’s not bad, and it nicely ties up the Western themes of The Lonesome Crowded West, but it kind of feels like a cartoon. Plus, there are other, better songs on that album—”Bankrupt On Selling,” “Lounge (Closing Time)”—that don’t get the attention this one does.

3. “Bukowski” (2004)
“Woke up this morning, and it seemed to me that every night turns out to be a little bit more like Bukowski/And yeah, I know he’s a pretty good read/But God, who’d wanna be?/God, who’d wanna be such an asshole?” It feels like Brock is just name-dropping here. Aside from those lines, the song doesn’t really seem to be about Buk at all. And I’d wager that if the song were titled differently and tossed out the disconnected reference, it would not be nearly as popular among fans. Not to mention, it’s kind of an asshole move to call a dead guy (one you’ve obviously taken stylistic and thematic cues from and probably never met) an asshole. Still, the Good News For People Who Love Bad News track has some great lines: “If God takes life, then he’s an Indian-giver” and “I can’t make it to your wedding, but I’m sure I’ll be at your wake” have the kind of heart-sinking weight of some of Modest Mouse’s best work. Overall though, the band had done much better without trying as hard.

4. “Dance Hall” (2004)
This song sounds like an alarm clock full of jackhammers, and it’s repetitive. One of the only tracks on Good News that finds me reaching for the “skip” button. These guys have a lot of songs that are beautiful and a lot of great jagged, loud/quiet/loud squawk, but here, Brock is just screaming the whole time. “Dance Hall” isn’t very dynamic, and it’s shallow water compared to most of the band’s other work. Almost any cut off 2009 odds-and-sods EP No One’s First And You’re Next (some of which were recorded during the same sessions as “Dance Hall”) would have been a better choice for the album.

5. “Tiny Cities Made Of Ashes” (2000)
The band took a lot of flack in the early ’00s for licensing songs for use in TV ads for beer and mini-vans. Brock said the reasoning behind it was for a bit of financial stability, and it’s hard to fault the guy for wanting to stop worrying about putting food on the table and keeping a roof over his head. But that doesn’t lessen the sting of hearing a song you love used as a marketing tool aimed at soccer moms and frat boys. Parts of “Tiny Cities Made Of Ashes” already sound like a commercial, not to mention the throwaway, tongue-in-cheek quality to the song; it would have made a much better pick for licensing. “Drinking, drinking, drinking, drinking/Coca, Coca Cola/I can feel it rolling right on down/Right on down my throat.” The Moon & Antarctica track didn’t have a logo plastered on it after the fact; it was there from the beginning.

:: The Five Most Underrated Modest Mouse Songs
1. “Edit The Sad Parts” (1996)
Originally available as a vinyl-exclusive bonus track for This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About, “Edit The Sad Parts” later appeared on the Interstate 8 EP. It’s got the best of what the band has to offer in a single song: an extended spacey jam, abrasive loud parts, quiet melodic parts and some of Brock’s most confessional and sensitive lyrics (“Sometimes all I really want to feel is love”). As an early recording, it is an impressive showcase of the band’s many strengths, but for some reason, it has been rarely played live.

2. “King Rat” (2007)
Dirty, muted horns and a frantic, paranoid desperation soak this song about a team of criminals. It originally appeared on a limited-edition promo seven-inch with We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank, but for some strange reason, the band decided not to put it on the album. The song was later re-released on No One’s First And You’re Next. Heath Ledger directed a great, brutal video for this tune shortly before his death that really captures the band’s aesthetic and sends a strong political message while not betraying the song itself.

3. “Florida” (2007)
“Florida” combines some of Modest Mouse’s best stabbing punk lines with a very poppy and catchy chorus. The majestic background vocals by the Shins’ James Mercer take the song to another level. The two singers hold a lot of the responsibility for the past decade’s mainstreaming of indie rock, and this is one of many tracks by Modest Mouse that’s exposing a kind of avant-post-punk to a portion of its audience that’s probably never “been into” anything so emotionally raw, abrasive and immediate, though the pop element that weaves throughout makes it digestible. That pop-crossover ability is part of what made Nirvana great, and it will likely be one of the defining aspects of Modest Mouse’s legacy.

4. “Heart Cooks Brain” (1997)
This Lonesome Crowded West track almost feels like an interlude between “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine” and “Convenient Parking.” It’s a sleeper that sneaks up on you. It never revs up but instead slips into a mellow groove and really helps fill out the atmosphere and themes of the album. This little song is often overlooked, but it’s got one of Brock’s best lines: “My brain’s the cliff, and my heart’s the bitter buffalo.”

5. “Make Everyone Happy/Mechanical Birds” (1996)
Buried toward the end of This Is A Long Drive, this song seems to have been mostly forgotten. It hasn’t been played much live, if ever, but it is so good. It starts slow with a quaint country banjo and Brock confessing “I’m not sure who I am,” but then it slowly builds to an epic, squealing crescendo. It would probably make a powerful, spacey closer to the band’s main set—the best part is the extended jam at the end.

—Edward Fairchild

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