As the songwriter for Modest Mouse — a project born in the early ’90s in Issaquah, Wash. — Isaac Brock’s eclecticism is extraordinary. He conjures tiny variations from single chords, sings from a range of wild emotions, and orchestrates beautiful tangles of musical themes within single songs.
Brock and his bandmates first started banging around the indie rock circuit in 1993. They recorded their first material in ’94 and released two albums in ’96 on the small Up label. The Fruit That Ate Itself and The Lonesome Crowded West followed. While garnering great reviews, they signed to Sony/Epic in 2000. Shortly after, The Moon & Antarctica rocketed them to commercial and artistic heights.
The key to their strongest material sat at the fulcrum of several spokes — the crossroads of simultaneous balancing acts. The band straddled musical restraint and chaos, thoughtful instrumentation and seemingly random noisiness, poetic lyrics and sharp-tongued rants, and a schizo cycle of moods.
Brock’s songwriting seemed more confident and emotive on his more recent recordings. 2004’s Good News For People Who Love Bad News was defiantly witty and danceable, as demonstrated by the catchy hit “Float On.” He welcomed guitarist Johnny Marr (of The Smiths) to the lineup for 2007’s We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, and the band’s independent streak continued.
On Modest Mouse’s latest collection, a batch of unreleased tunes and rarities titled No One’s First, And You’re Next, Brock still sounds aggravated and determined.
The intense, straight-beat opener “Satellite Skin” is a tune that gathers steam as the band adds guitar licks, clinky noises, and high-pitched vocals. The slower “Guilty Cocker Spaniels” bounces to a syncopated disco ‘n’ reggae-tinged rhythm and intertwining guitar chord progressions while Brock spits out mouthfuls of crammed-in lyrics, building up to shouty intensity.
The tone veers into sweeter, softer ground on the swingin’, drowsy acoustic pop ditty “Autumn Beds” — a tastefully accented gem with a clever arrangement (the banjos are a nice touch) and a chirpy chorus of “We won’t be sleepin’, we won’t be sleepin’ in our autumn beds.” Slinkier, drier, and creepier, “The Whale Song” features bits of guitar-string strangling that would make Thurston Moore or Lee Ranaldo grin.
With its extra brass and sax, the cartoonish pop song “Perpetual Motion Machine” marches with a whimsical feel that matches the happiest cuts in the Elephant 6 catalog. The more hypnotic “History Sticks to Your Feet” comes back to the indie-styled guitar-rock and crescendos. Propelled by plucky banjo, vibrato cello, syncopated xylophone, and blasts of trumpet, the bizarre “King Rat” sounds like a different band altogether.
No One’s First, And You’re Next closes with the funkiest, most upbeat tune of the collection — “I’ve Got It All (Most).” In a falsetto, Brock asks, “How can someone so inconsistent mess up so consistently?”
Listening to this curious collection, one could easily turn that around to, “how can a songwriter so unpredictable succeed so consistently?”
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