Strange things were brewing during the months preceding the release of Modest Mouse's Good News for People Who Love Bad News. Epic Records stalled its scheduled release twice, delaying it from September to March and then from March to April. Sometime around the announcement of the second delay, word came from the Epic camp that the band's previous effort, 2000's The Moon & Antarctica, would be re-released in a remastered and expanded edition shortly before the new album -- a seemingly unnecessary and suspect decision for a record that was barely four years old. If those developments weren't enough to cast fear into the hearts of loyal Mouseketeers, the band authorized their song "Gravity Rides Everything" for a car commercial. Had another inspired and unique band been sacrificed to the gods of the big budget music industry?
"Horn Intro", the first track on Good News for People Who Love Bad News, takes all premature second-guesses and abruptly renders them as insignificant as fly splatters on a windshield. The nine-second drunken blast, courtesy of The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, is a palette-cleansing moment, reassuring us that all is still askew in the world of Modest Mouse.
Askew, when used to reference the 11-year-old band from Issaquah, Washington, is a good thing. Known for their off-kilter approach to rock music, Modest Mouse has carved a shifty, twitchy niche for itself. Frontman Isaac Brock is a unique craftsman, his unconventional songs presented with a raspy, idiosyncratic lisp that is both the voice of a ranting preacher and a steadfast believer. The band is a rare breed: indie darling, signed by a major label, able to retain its original vision and a slot on the active roster for more than one year. The Moon & Antarctica, the first release for Epic, was Modest Mouse's watershed moment, a cavernous, widescreen version of its sound that focused heavily on acoustic instruments and atmosphere. That record was eye-opening: here was an odd indie band that effortlessly unveiled a career-defining masterpiece, seemingly out of nowhere and certainly against all expectations.
While it's not as shockingly new as that album was, Good News for People Who Love Bad News is unequivocally great, a logical progression in style and scope. Brock's lyrics remain occupied with oblique images of mortality, both in direct human references and evoking motifs of nature. "Yeah, everybody's talkin' about death," he remarks in "Satin in a Coffin", adding, "Are you dead or are you sleepin'? / God, I sure hope you are dead." In "Black Cadillacs", over a bounding bass line from Eric Judy, he notes "it's true that the clouds hung around / Like black Cadillacs outside a funeral". He's equally taunting ("I can't make it to your wedding / But I'm sure I'll be at your wake"), optimistic ("Maybe we'll get lucky / And we'll both live again"), venomous ("You wasted life / Why wouldn't you waste death?"), and contently resigned ("If it takes shit to make bliss / Well, I feel pretty blissfully"). While it's not always simple to decipher what Brock is intending to say, he always engages and provokes. The listener is at liberty to piece it all together and construct meaning -- ample reason alone for revisiting the mysteries embedded in each song.
The album was recorded in New Orleans, Louisiana by Dennis Herring (Camper Van Beethoven, Concrete Blonde, Sparklehorse), who forgoes The Moon & Antarctica's spacey atmospherics for a more grounded production style. The songs are notably influenced by the surroundings, populated with Southern instrumentation: banjo, accordion, fiddle, and even the aforementioned Dirty Dozen Brass Band populate the album's landscape. (Incidentally, it seems fitting that the American South would eventually work its way into Modest Mouse, as Brock has gradually evolved into the William Faulkner of rock with his hijacked stream-of-consciousness lyrics and imagery that conjures connection with purveyors of the gothic and grotesque.) The banjos, accordion, and standup bass prominent in "Bukowski" and "Satin in a Coffin" deliver an alt-country swagger of bare-boned mythology, like Gillian Welch just released from an asylum. "This Devil's Workday" unravels cryptically with the aid of a psychotically menacing horn section and Brock's contorted voice teetering at belligerent heights.
Whether it's primarily due to Herring's influence or not, Good News for People Who Love Bad News casts the band as fitter and leaner, muscles toned with glistening brilliance. "Ocean Breathes Salty" and "Bury Me With It" showcase some of the tightest Modest Mouse performances ever captured to tape, its expansive ambitions matched only by the intensity of execution. The quasi-funk of "The View" grooves along with Brock's elastic rhythm guitar and a pulsating chorus (probably a contender for a pop hit if it weren't for the rampant screams and distorted barker calls that flutter around the verses). And in "Dance Hall" (reminiscent of The Pixies' "Rock Music" in its defiant, howling incantation), Brock shouts an anti-melody as guitars, piano, and glockenspiel spin webs of delicious cadence.
If there's one misstep in the creation of an otherwise perfect album, it's the decision to have Dave Fridmann and The Flaming Lips mix the album's final track, "The Good Times Are Killing Me". The song begins with a Brian Wilson-inspired vocal over soft acoustic guitar and bass, but is quickly engulfed by the distorted drums and heavy keyboard synths that Fridmann and The Lips have practically trademarked over the years. While an interesting choice, perhaps this mix would have been best used as a b-side for one of the album's singles. The distinct feel of the mix ultimately appears out of place from the rest of the album and therefore comes dangerously close to ruining the cohesive flow.
It's worth noting that this is the first album without original drummer Jeremiah Green, who left the band shortly before recording commenced in New Orleans. Benjamin Weikel steps in behind the drum kit and formidably compensates for Green's absence with flourishing talent. Eric Judy's bass lines are stronger than ever, constantly reaching for new creative impulses (listen to him climb around a melodic ladder in "One Chance"). In addition, Dann Gallucci rounds out the line-up as another official member, contributing guitar and piano tracks that perfectly complement the progressive expanse the band has forged over the years.
In the last few weeks, big radio stations like KROQ-FM in Los Angeles have placed the album's single "Float On" in fairly heavy rotation, no doubt due in large part to Epic's continuing support. While an uncompromising approach to rock will keep world domination at bay, hopefully this continued exposure will provide Modest Mouse with a deservedly increased notoriety. With Good News for People Who Love Bad News, Brock and Co. have cemented their status as one of our most eclectic and engaging musical forces. And that's good news indeed.
23 April 2004