As I write this, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, the third major-label album from Northwest indie-rockers Modest Mouse (and "major-label indie-rock band" is no longer the oxymoron it was), is the number-one album in the country, according to the Billboard charts. Happily, this isn't as unusual as it sounds, as Modest Mouse is the third "indie" band this year to open big, following the Shins and Arcade Fire.
Unlike Modest Mouse, the Shins (who record for Seattle's Sub Pop) and Arcade Fire (Chapel Hill's Merge) still qualify as actual "indie" bands. But though Modest Mouse has the power of Epic Records behind them and though We Were Dead ... was launched off the strength of the band's platinum-selling 2004 album Good News for People Who Like Bad News and its breakout single "Float On," I still find Modest Mouse's commercial triumph more unlikely. Unlike the Shins, there's no romance -- however melancholy -- to Modest Mouse's music. And Arcade Fire traffic in a grandiosity to which U2 fans can relate.
By contrast, the music made by Modest Mouse leader Isaac Brock and his cohort is positively forbidding. They've gotten over without compromise: The band's music may have more expansive production now, but it's as insular and depressive as ever.
Brock doesn't do choruses. He does mantras, which he puts over with Tourette's Syndrome vocals that howl, grunt, shriek, and whisper. There are echoes of the Talking Heads and Pere Ubu in the way Brock's spastic voice bobs along atop his band's jerky rhythms.
Partly recorded and mixed in Oxford, Mississippi, We Were Dead ... marks the addition of former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr to the band, though his impact is, um, modest. The record mostly sounds like the same old Modest Mouse.
We Were Dead ... is another excursion into one of Brock's dystopian dream worlds -- fidgety, unsatisfied, bemused in its isolation and sense of entrapment. The lyrics, as always, are simultaneously sharp and gnomic, filled this time with nautical imagery for reasons probably known only to Brock.
The single "Dashboard" sums up the effect, Brock singing, "You told me about nowhere/It sounds like the place I'd like to go." This is music in constant motion on a road shaped like a figure eight. It makes "nowhere" seem like the place to go. -- Chris Herrington