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Modest Mouse
We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank
Release Date March 20, 2007

Reviewed by Eric Atienza


When one of indie rock’s favorite names comes out with a new album bolstered by the addition of ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr and including several guest vocals by Shins frontman James Mercer it’s expected that there will be a lot of overblown hype prior to the record’s release. In the case of Modest Mouse’s We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, the hype is mostly true.

Isaac Brock returns to an older Modest Mouse style on the opener, “March Into the Sea” with ragged, harsh, fantastically desperate vocals and music that shifts between slow and contemplative to brash and abrasively loud – but in a good way. The rest of the front end of the album features tracks with a noticeable dance groove, including the electrifying first single “Dashboard”. While not approaching the sheer pop held by Modest Mouse’s last big dance single, “Float On”, “Dashboard” has a drive and urgency missing from most of the band’s last record. The production here is huge with layers of horns and keys, not to mention Mercer’s backing vocals.

As the album progresses Brock shows that a cleaner, more polished Modest Mouse isn’t necessarily a bad thing as he harnesses styles from previous records and merges them with the band’s newer, catchier sensibilities. “Fire it Up” recalls the minimal, sparse, slightly dissonant manner of 1997’s Lonesome Crowded West with a lilting guitar and laid back vocals over a steady, straightforward drum and bass line. The staccato, stutter-stepping verses on “Florida” would be at home on 2000’s The Moon and Antarctica as they dance between silky smooth choruses. Indeed the greatest strength of We Were Dead…is its ability to marry its dancy, pop leanings with Modest Mouse’s older, more inventive and experimental modes.
The record mellows as it reaches its middle, though the slightly smaller sounds only serve to cast a spotlight on the strengths of the album. “Missed the Boat” is Brock at his lyrical best as he crafts an easy, meandering, seemingly happy song infused with thoughtful, yearning, self-deprecating topics.

“Looking towards the future
We were begging for the past
Well we knew we had the good things
But those never seemed to last
Oh please just last”

The album’s greatest moment comes on its longest song; the eight minute, blues-heavy “Spitting Venom”. Easily the most dynamic track on the record, it trades off between straightforward acoustic blues to loud, sharp, coarse noise. This dramatic shift in styles and pace makes this feel like a much shorter song and while musical and lyrical themes are repeated they always end up sounding fresh.
While We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank consistently incorporates elements from Modest Mouse’s past, this record is in no way a complete return to those older forms. Marr’s addition and influence isn’t dramatic but is certainly noticeable in a new depth and presence in the guitars. He at once infuses a new energy into the band and builds a more solid guitar structure giving the group a fuller, more complete sound. As the band grows into its bigger shoes and production values it clearly demonstrates a desire to maintain links to its roots but also take its music in new directions. If this record is an indication of things to come, that might not be such a bad thing after all.

For more information, log onto: modestmousemusic.com.


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