One of the oddest combinations in indie music happened last year with the announcement of Johnny Marr, famed guitarist with The Smiths, joining Modest Mouse for their tour with a view to helping them with their new album. This was all rather strange, thought not entirely mad. Marr hasn’t really done anything of any real note since The Smiths (his solo project was pretty poor and the stuff with Electronic was good if not groundbreaking). So would this give both Modest Mouse and Marr (perhaps it was the attraction of all those M’s) a bit of a kick, an injection of something both were missing? Initial live shows were positive and, if We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank is anything to go by, it could be one of the best developments and twists of the year.
First impressions are of the Mouse beefing up. Their sound feels more robust than their usual whimsical self, Isaac Brock’s voice even more rough and up front than usual. The addition of Marr seems to have allowed them to weave more intricate musical webs. Although not always apparent, if you listen hard enough Marr’s fingerprint is obvious. The first single Dashboard is a good indicator of things to come, quite possibly one of the singles of the year, the intricate grooves it carves are mesmerising, the guitars float around those gruff vocals as it jangles through its four minutes with the added bonus of a brass section. Florida possesses more of this fantastic melding of Modest Mouse’s angular Alternative riffs and Marr’s obvious love of all things pop-tastic. His guitar is all over this as it moves into the chorus, driving the song along from it’s fractured beginings. Then there’s Parting of the Sensory, which is more obvious Mouse territory. It’s jarring, interspersing melodies and instruments create something aggressive and brooding, Brock’s voice spitting and fuming his way through the lyrics; “Who the hell made you the boss?”. The sunshine filled We’ve Got Everything is like The Shins with it’s Beach Boys harmonies and Californian guitars chiming away whilst Steam Engenius is another example of them melding their two forces, Brock’s aggression and Marr’s ear for a pop-tune. I don’t know how much input Marr has on the song writing or music writing, but his influence is definitely being felt. The chiming guitars that drive through songs and the way they seem to twist and turn themselves around the melody is striking. One of the problems with this album though is that it’s just a little too long. By the time you get to the epic, eight minute, Spitting Venom you might have had enough of their twisted indie-pop anthems and you could do with a bit of a break. We shouldn’t be dressing them down for having too many ideas though, but it might be nice for them to condense things a little.
Modest Mouse have managed to craft an impressive album out of two seemingly disparate avenues. Whether it was a conscious effort or not, the combination of Brock’s aggression and Marr’s pop sensibilities has formed something greater than the sum of it’s parts. And, in a way, that’s something that The Smiths were also considerably good at too. This is a contender for one of the albums of the ear, it may be a bit too long, but the great songs and wonderful melodies more than make up for that. Impressive.