Good News for People Who Love Bad News
Last year, Modest Mouse left their stomping grounds in the Pacific Northwest to record this fourth full-length at Sweet Tea Studios in Oxford. Presumably, the reason for this change in locale was to flee -- if only momentarily -- the boatload of troubles hounding them in Washington -- namely, the recent split with original drummer Jeremiah Green and frontman Isaac Brock's legal troubles over drunk-driving and date-rape charges (the latter of which have been withdrawn).
If it was Southern comfort the band was looking for, Good News suggests they found it. On "Float On," the first single, Brock confesses, "Bad news comes, don't you worry even when it lands/Good news will work its way to all them plans." Especially after the emotional desolation of The Moon and Antarctica and the searching confusion of Building Nothing Out of Something, this small admission is revelatory, almost sublime. On "One Chance," he admits, "My friends, my habits, my family/They mean so much to me" with no trace of irony or hesitation. In fact, Good News is Brock's most personal statement to date. On "The World at Large," he even discloses what kind of books he enjoys: "I like songs about drifters, books about the same/They both seem to make me feel a little less insane."
But Brock tempers all this good news with the kind of bad news that makes so many of his songs such glorious downers. "Float On," the album's most upbeat song, is followed by "Ocean Breathes Salty," which self-accuses, "You wasted life/Why wouldn't you waste death?" He dreads the end of the world on "Bury Me With It" and calls himself an asshole and God a control freak on "Bukowski."
As its Mobius-strip title suggests, Good News has as many contradictions as David Banner's Mississippi, a comparison that I wish weren't as far off as it sounds. Coming from a band whose music rock critic Robert Christgau has called "as brave and beautiful as the blues," the choice of studio would seem appropriate, if not downright inevitable, but Good News sounds like it could have been recorded anywhere. Modest Mouse seem to have made no use of their surroundings or its musical traditions. For instance, the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band guest on "Bury Me With It" and "The Good Times Are Killing Me," but they're so absorbed into the mix that they're sadly indistinguishable from the programmed drums.
That Good News sounds so much like typical Modest Mouse is both good news and bad. In recording down in this neck of the woods, the band raised expectations but bypassed an opportunity to explore and expand their sound and influences. On the other hand, to say that Modest Mouse sounds like Modest Mouse is hardly a criticism.
Pedro the Lion
Thriving in the healthy post-hardcore margins of late-'90s/early-'00s understated rock, Pedro the Lion were named after an imaginary children's book/Bible-story character from the head of ringleader David Bazam, who fleshed out an unobtrusive and personal version of Christianity in his lyrics. "PTL" -- get it? Okay, I'm sure that was unintentional.
But the primary difference between the band's former albums and Achilles Heal is that the Christian influence isn't as detectable as before. That and this record is quieter than anything the band has done. The pace rarely exceeds that of the like-sounding Hayden or Bedhead, but the trappings of minimalism (which plagues a band like Low) are escaped by way of keyboard swells and a panoramic lushness. Minor chords on the perpetual downstroke are the backbone of Achilles Heal, and they fit superbly inside the appropriate nonflashiness of the drumming.
Pedro the Lion continue to ply a reliable and airtight grade of slow, introspective indie-rock that wasn't broke, so it didn't need fixing on their fifth album.
Pedro the Lion plays an early show Saturday, April 24th, at the Hi-Tone CafÇ, with the Glass. Showtime is 8 p.m.