Modest Mouse is already being heralded in some circles as one of the bands that saved indie rock from sluggish lo-fi self-indulgence, but I would like to further propose that the trio of Isaac Brock (lyrics, guitar), Eric Judy (bass) and Jerimiah Green (drums) has wider appeal than a young hipster audience. The Lonesome Crowded West melds blues and country with Seventies-style American folk and garage-influenced post-punk even more obviously than 1996’s genius This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About, which opens with the classic “Dramamine,” its melodic theme lifted from Fairport Convention’s version of the traditional song “Nottamun Town,” whose tune was likewise borrowed by Bob Dylan for “Masters of War”.
The Lonesome Crowded West is effectively a concept album, expressing Brock’s dismay at the encroachment of Californian development on the band’s hometown of Issaquah, Washington while extolling the psychological virtues of cutting ties and travelling cross-country. The lyrics are poetic and emotionally provocative but not for the easily offended; Brock has a definite way with a turn of phrase and an ear for the sound of the words he uses. “Jesus Christ Was An Only Child,” which features an acoustic guitar and a fiddle chasing each other around the geometric structure of the song, tackles the commercialization of religion bluntly. “Polar Opposites,” on the musical exterior a lovable pop song replete with hand-claps, explores the barren plain of alcoholism and depression (“I’m dying, I’m trying to / Drink away the part of the day that I cannot sleep away”). The most effective indictments of urban development occur on the constant motion of “Convenient Parking” and the jagged, spasmodic anger of “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine” (“The malls are the soon-to-be ghost-towns / Well so long, farewell, goodbye”). The situation that development and commercialization have created, is well-detailed in the straight-up rocker “Trailer Trash” and the alt-country-tinged loop of “Cowboy Dan”.
Brock’s lyrics work most effectively, however, in the context of his bandmates’ musical contributions. Green, who also works with Red Stars Theory and Satisfact, is one of the most talented drummers to come out of modern post-punk; he has a distinctive and complex style which establishes the drums as equal to the other instruments rather than laying down a simple rhythm. Judy’s basslines are thick, warm, loping, and sensual, and Brock’s trademark sharp guitar style is supported well by Dann Galluci (of the Murder City Devils). As mentioned before, The Lonesome Crowded West is more musically diverse and somewhat more fast-paced than previous Modest Mouse efforts; “Trucker’s Atlas” (my favorite song on the album) has a definite bluesy flavor, for instance, added to the dense mix of post-punk (which takes its influences from as far afield as Swell Maps, The Damned and Slint), “Heart Cooks Brain” incorporates record-scratching, and the wordplay of “Styrofoam Boots/It’s All Nice On Ice, Alright” takes its cues from bluegrass.
Though The Lonesome Crowded West deals with ugly subjects, it does so effectively, with honesty and understanding. Stylistically, it can at times be both coarse and difficult. And Brock’s wavering lisp is not for everyone. However, I consider Modest Mouse to be one of the most talented and original young groups currently making music, and the way in which they graft various roots-music styles into the stuttering alienation of post-punk gives me hope that their appeal is not as limited as the self-referential indie rock scene.
(Up Records, 1998)