Modest Mouse hasn’t put out a full length record since 2007. In the nearly eight years since their number one record, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, Isaac Brock and company have apparently been busy. They have spent time in Atlanta showing Big Boi how to make apple pipes in Stankonia Studios, Brock has been seen on Portlandia and even scored a couple movies, and fairly recently he said in an interview that the band had been working with fellow Seattleite Krist Novoselic (Apparently they were working on Modest Mouse things that did not end up making it to this record). The band has also seen various lineup changes with founding member and bassist Eric Judy leaving the band, and the exit of ex Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, who - according to Brock - didn’t actually leave the band, rather just became busy. To help carry the weight they brought in multi-instrumentalist Lisa Molinaro who is taking time off from her Talkdemonic gig. Now that we’re caught up on the goings on of Modest Mouse, we are still left to wonder why did this record take so long? Brock insists that he simply lost track of time. The surly but affable front man is now 38 years old, playing in the same band he started when he was 20. The question everyone seems to be asking themselves is can a band that seemingly ran on coke, salt water and angst keep going?
What we have been given is very clearly a Modest Mouse record. The record is lengthy but doesn’t drag and is filled with dense and dark introspection from Brock. The record has twangy guitars bending in and out of each other, booming drums (live and electronic) and layered vocals snarling and spitting throughout. With previous records there always seemed to be an overlying theme or tone from track one on; you could feel everything that the band was going through. On Strangers to Ourselves there is no through line from track to track - giving a feeling that this record did actually take all of those eight years to make. Parts of this record feel like the most experimental work the band has ever put out, while other songs you will have sworn you’ve heard them play before.
The opening and title track of the record feel like a welcome home with a swelling string arrangement and Brock gently crooning about regret and the merits of being able to forget the past. Immediately following that we hear the album's radio single that was released late last year, "Lampshades of Fire", a song that would have sit happily on either of their previous two records. Unfortunately after that you can start to hear the endless time spent in the studio, the second guessing and the feeling they don’t know where they’re going. In a track called "Pistol" (A. Cunanan, Miami, FL. 1996) Brock asks, “Why don’t you come to my room/and clean my pistol no duh” sung over a misplaced bass line and a painful drum machine. I’m not sure if this was an attempt at catching the magic that Tiny Cities Made of Ashes lived in or if this was something he needed to get out of his system, but luckily for us that is where the serious issues with this record are exhausted.
Following the odd bragging of a lustful encounter with a Floridian in 1996 we are introduced to a new version of the band. This version of them seems okay with getting older and wiser and can’t help but notice the rest of the world is headed in the opposite direction. In a standout track "The Ground Walks with Time in a Box", Modest Mouse settle back into the groove they discovered in earlier offerings but with the added virtue of Brock’s new outlook; ostensibly lamenting that this world was clearly not made for him, but with a new feeling of apathy. From here on the record's bright spots continue and even have some bite. Tracks "Be Brave" and "The Best Room" channel what we've loved about this band for nearly 20 years - even if it is initially disconcerting to hear Brock growl about kids getting fat from playing video games.
It is unfair to expect a band to simultaneously make the same type of music and be in the same place for their entire career. Modest Mouse has evolved a lot over their time as a band, but what they’ve given us in Strangers To Ourselves seems a step short of where they could have been. For a band that was founded on confusion and angst, much of this record feels too calculated and professional. Strangers to Ourselves is married, has a house and a 401K, but that isn’t a bad thing even if it is a little less charming than the transient who will take whatever pills you might have. There is still something to latch on to amidst the over production and these bigger songs will undoubtedly make for a fantastic live show. This is a good record not a great one. Brock has said that the band is back and they plan on putting out a new full length “as quickly as it's legally allowed”, I hope that next album will include the music recorded with Novoselic and more. At the end of the day, I’m just glad they’re back.