The Over/Under: Modest Mouse


Platinum-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

22 replies on “The Over/Under: Modest Mouse”

I don’t understand how a band that has only had one hit can have underrated or overrated songs, but I’d put down most of the stuff from their last two albums as overrated and everything from Lonesome Crowded West or The Moon & Antarctica as underrated. Of course that sounds snobbish, but when my kids are discovering Modest Mouse, something tells me that we’ll all agree that Moon was their peak.

Thank you for not putting Float On in the overrated category. That would have been really easy, but you resisted the temptation. That song deserves to be as popular as it is, and thus I feel it is accurately rated. Actually, the whole list here is pretty good. Kudos! Although I would say that basically every song up through ’97 would be underrated, really.

The first few albums and slew of singles were nothing short of Brilliant. Since then I’ve bought every piece of nonsense they’ve put out and it’s still better than most of what I buy but nearly as good as the early stuff. With that said, as an old dude, they made me feel the same way early Pixies did when I was just a youngen’. So I have to say Cowboy Dan is a classic and I think the one song that needs to be hyped from Long Drive was “Ohio”. That song was the perfect melding of indie rock and skinny, pale white boy rap!

Dingo: a pickup driving, drunk cowboy that wants to get in fights with Indians named ‘Cowboy Dan’ sounds like a two-dimensional cliche to me. A cartoon.

Here are some other options that are underrated:
Night on the Sun
The Stars Are Projectors
Styrofoam Boots/It’s All Nice..
The Waydown
Sunspots in the House of the Late Scapegoat
Grey Ice Water
Guilty Cocker Spaniels

I agree that “Talkin’ shit about a Pretty Sunset” is one that they should play more live. Although the last two times I saw them live all they play is the new stuff and for someone who is a fan of their older stuff, it really sucks. I know that the whole point of going on tour is to promote and album but they should really play a slew of older tunes for their true fans.

Everything was fine until you got to the list. You’re opening was great. I agree: They’ve basically become an overproduced slick band but “The Whale Song” gives hope.

Yet that list. Tiny Cities and Cowboy Dan are overrated? I feel bad for you.

“Dingo: a pickup driving, drunk cowboy that wants to get in fights with Indians named ‘Cowboy Dan’ sounds like a two-dimensional cliche to me. A cartoon.”

Your attempt at writing sentences is a cartoon.

Very very happy to see “Mechanical Birds” and “Heart Cooks Brain” on here. Agree with all on “Talking Shit…”, too.

The only one here i kinda agree with on the first list is dance hall, it is quite repetitive and certainly not one of their better songs. I think that most if not all modest mouse songs a quite under rated, i don’t even here songs like float on and dashboard being played over the radio or in cafés, out of all modest mouse songs they are over rated but in the whole world of music? No, not over rated. Cowboy Dan and Bukowski? Really? Theres no getting past the fact that Cowboy Dan is one of the best modest mouse songs and compared to some modest mouse songs not very well known at all. Bukowski is a great song and not over rated at all. Rant over. Sorry to all the poor people who have had the patients to read all this but i wanted to make my opinion clear. I have every modest mouse song there is available to purchase and many that aren’t and i think that they are all pretty damn good 🙂

gotta agree with others people, talking shit about a pretty sunset is one of my faves, and definitely underrated if you ask me. also trailer trash, perfect disguise, and doin the cockroach dont get much attention

however, the fact that a song may be underrated doesn’t mean its not fine being that way. no too sure how happy id be if i heard one of them on a commercial or anything…

two disagreements I have with this list. One, Cowboy Dan. “Drove to the desert, fired his rifle in the sky/ Said, “God, if I have to die, your gonna have to die” is easilly one of the best lines in music history. And while I do love a few lines from Heart Cooks Brain, I can rarely force myself to listen to the track because it never goes anywhere. To me, it feels like filler. And Lounge (Closing Time) does a good job of representing those lines in a more energetic way.

Replacements for those: Well, honestly, I can’t think of any that are over rated. I would be tempted to say Float On, if only because that’s the ONLY Modest Mouse song most people know, but in that sense, that songs not really overrated, the rest of their entire library is simply underrated. (I say that from experience. For anyone to know who I’m talking about when I say MM I have to play the frickin song. Everytime, it never fails) Underrated, mad props on Making Everybody happy, by the way, I would say, Ohio (beautiful song.) or Steam Enginius. Or Dark Center of the Universe (that might just be me… that song helped me solve a spiritual delima I was having) Anywho, just my two cents on the issue.

Wow, I completely agree with the overrated tracks. Haven’t actual heard most of the underrated ones, but love mechanical birds. Also think that tundra/desert is underrated, anyone agree?

Bukowski is NOT a name-drop. Isaac brilliantly compares God to Bukowski in this track. Both God and Bukowski have the power to create worlds and create circumstances, and Isaac is pissed at God for having the nerve to write him such a shitty life. Isaac Brock feels that, if God is Charles Bukowski, then he is Henry Chinaski, and this song is a lament of that.

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