On the surface, Modest Mouse's 22-year narrative might seem similar to the band's still-active contemporaries who also originated in American first- and second-generation post hardcore or indie rock. A gross oversimplification of the playbook would be as follows: a breakthrough album released on the cusp of Y2K or shortly thereafter that coincided nicely with the above-grounding of indie rock, NPR's embracement, and the Coachella or Bonnaroo-initiated "festivalization" of indie rock. Unlike some of their contemporaries, Modest Mouse reached real fame, and it came a decade and four albums into the band's career.
The early-'90s grunge/alt/indie explosion was a massive cultural hangover by mid-decade, especially in the Pacific Northwest, and Modest Mouse was part of the same reactionary scene that gave the world Sleater Kinney, Karp, Built to Spill, Elliott Smith (and his band Heatmiser), and Unwound, among other lesser known but no less interesting bands. Modest Mouse formed in 1993 and debuted the following year with a 7" on the venerable K Records label (founded by Beat Happening's Calvin Johnson). The band gelled into a more powerful and stylistically pioneering reboot of their chosen form through a succession of EPs and albums released between 1996 and 1998. This Is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About (1996, originally on Up! Records) is one of the great first records in the modern history of American underground rock.
The band introduced a sound that came out of combining influences (Polvo, Unwound, the Pixies, Minutemen, Beat Happening, Built to Spill and Doug Martsch's pre-BTS band Treepeople, Fugazi, Bob Dylan, Lync, Sonic Youth, early Talking Heads, Rites of Spring, the Wipers, Mission of Burma) into a signature style that had no real musical precedent. A proverbial "next level" was achieved with 1997's The Lonesome Crowded West. The feral desperation and unpredictable dynamic chaos of the debut - very positive characteristics in this writer's opinion - were not so much dialed down as they were honed by the tighter playing of a band that went straight into the studio from the road and knew exactly what it wanted. This era of Modest Mouse, especially the game-changing second album, was met with much critical love, though it was always with the "if you can get past the singer's voice" caveat. This is funny considering the ultra-dramatic "Black Francis-meets-David Byrne" vocal style of guitarist and front man Isaac Brock would become such a massive influence on later acts like Animal Collective and Yeasayer that for a while, it seemed like a mandatory musical element if a band was to get post-millennial indie-huge.
The Lonesome Crowded West featured enough expansion of the Modest Mouse palate over the less subtle, more feral debut album that it initiated the band's crossover to an audience outside of the indie underground confines, and Modest Mouse's incessant schedule of road-dogging it around the country certainly didn't hurt, either. Though there's a huge radio hit in Modest Mouse's future, the band's body of work doesn't just have one "tipping point" album, it has three, and each was a breakthrough in its own way. The Lonesome Crowded West was the first.
The idiotic cries of "sell out!" came before there was even a third record to evaluate, but that's what happened when the band announced its inevitable move to a major label for their third album. And that brings us to Modest Mouse's only other Memphis performance - a stop in 2000 at the ill-fated Last Place on Earth during the long-touring cycle in support of The Moon & Antarctica. Retroactively celebrated as a seminal classic long before The Lonesome Crowded West would finally get such treatment, Modest Mouse's third album was a weird but not really all that challenging wide-screen work and was more like an American answer to Radiohead.
The band returned to the area to record their fourth album, Good News for People Who Love Bad News, at Easley/McCain Recording Studios, but ended up finishing it in Oxford, Mississippi, at Sweet Tea Studios. If The Moon & Antarctica followed a more accessible musical agenda (aka "maturing") that exponentially increased the band's fan base, then Good News for People Who Love Bad News is where the band's fluke-ish Talking Heads-informed hit "Float On" got stuck in your mom's head because she heard it playing at Walgreens. Album number five, 2007's We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, was a post-millennial Modest Mouse album just like its predecessor, but thematically based around - you guessed it - sudden fame.
For the past 15 years there has been a very "Gawkerized" side to the Modest Mouse story, and it can be easily accessed by perusing approximately 95 percent of what's been written about the band, including the write-ups on their sixth studio album. Titled Strangers to Ourselves and released on March 3rd of this year, it's another all-over-the-map Modest Mouse record (as in not all that different from the last three) rather than what Rolling Stone called "alternative rock's Chinese Democracy."
Some facts should be noted: Modest Mouse never broke up or went on hiatus, yet many media outlets have treated their return like some sort of reunion or reformation situation. Only in 2015 would music journalism allow the causal factors of an album's "eight year delay" to get more coverage than any assessments of the record itself, but that certainly didn't hurt the band's ability to swiftly sell out Minglewood Hall shortly after next Wednesday's show was announced.