Beards, Blazers & Glasses or Me, Modest Mouse and The Seth Cohen Fanclub
Walking into the airy art-deco Wiltern and seeing hordes of teenagers and trendy Los Angeles club-goers buzzing with excitement about the "indie rock n' roll show,"(their words not mine) I couldn't help but think about how strange it is that one three-minute song can radically alter the career trajectory of a band. Of course, that song is "Float On," one of the catchiest slices of pop ever written and the band, venerable indie-rock favorites Modest Mouse, who after ten years of plugging away and slowly expanding their fan base, found themselves rock's latest darlings, thanks to the undeniable catchiness of "Float On" and a Bait-Shop performance on (gulp) "The O.C."
Combined with Epic's promotional push, the band has become the go-to Good Band For People Who Like Bad Bands, to flip their own terminology. Indeed, your average Modest Mouse fan these days is as apt to like Panic at the Disco! as he or she is to like Peter, Bjorn and John. Of course, this is no fault of the Isaaquah, Washington quintet. In many ways, their previous album Good News For People Who Like Bad News was the ideal crossover, adding a poppy sheen to the band's Pavement by way of Tom Waits dirges that dominated albums like The Lonesome Crowded West and The Moon and Antartica.
But that made it no less strange to see the pudgy beer-swilling frat boy to the right of me, rocking out to "Ocean Breaths Salty." Indeed the guy looked like he'd taken the wrong turn at the Dave Matthews show and had somehow wound up here watching Isaac Brock's wounded animal yelp instead. Apparently, no one that packed into the Wiltern had received the memo that Modest Mouse is not a good live band. I had in fact received said memo but chose to disregard it, anxious to see the impact of the band's newest member, the legendary guitarist Johnny Marr of Smiths fame.
Mickey Mouse: Definitely Androgynous But Not Exactly Modest
In spite of the fact that Johnny Marr was one of the two musical masterminds behind the best band of the 80s and in spite of the fact that he might have the greatest head of hair of any 43 year-old on the planet, Marr couldn't do much to stop his new band from falling flat at the Wiltern, the Bermuda Triangle of Los Angeles concert halls, a cavernous space swallowing all but the most dynamic live bands. And dynanism is not something that Modest Mouse's live show has going for it
Sure, barrel-chested Isaac Brock did his best Bobcat Goldthwait howl, trying to muster as much passion as possible, but ultimately his thin voice was lost in the barn-like space. Each lyric was rendered incomprehensible, each aside to the crowd between songs sounded like jibberish. Rather than the seasoned veterans that they are, Modest Mouse looked like a group of rookies, uncertain of which song to play next, uninspired chord changes and ho-hum off-key riffing.
Granted, it was only the band's second show of the tour, (the first was covered by Rolling Stone here) but the lack of preparation and rehearsal showed. Certainly, there were high points. After all, this band didn't get to where they were without talent. In particular, "Bukowski" shone performed live, Marr's sharp rolling guitar licks beefening up the track's carnival jingle-jangle. Additionally, Brock busted out his banjo, while the band trotted out a violin bass that vastly enriched the sound. Another high point came when with Marr's backing vocals, Brock delivered a rousing rendition of "Paper Thin Walls" from The Moon and Antarctica.
Suffice To Say, A Mouse With An Eye-Patch Cannot Be Modest
Modest Mouse's setlist hewed closely to tracks from Good News interspersed with songs from the unreleased We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank. As for the new tracks, while it's difficult to judge songs hearing them for the first time live, I wasn't very impressed. Most seemed slow and flat, almost sounding like adult-contemporary ballads. I hope I'm proved wrong, but I wouldn't expect much from the upcoming album.
In particular, album tracks that succeeded partially from Brock's manic vocals seemed a bit ridiculous sounding live, specifically the racuous "Dance Hall" and "Bury Me With It" that sounded more akin to a man receiving a lobotomy sans anesthesia, then a rock song. And while Johnny Marr's guitar did add some heft to the band's sound it wasn't enough, as most songs just sounded weak and impotent versions of themselves.
Needless to say, Modest Mouse are a good band, but befitting their reputation, they are weak live. Johnny Marr or no Johnny Mar. Brock's voice hasn't aged well and I can't see it getting better. Of course, like a veteran pitcher the band can spot its tosses well, and managed to convince a whole lot of the two-concert a year crowd that this was the show of 2006. Especially when "Float On" came on mid-set, eliciting the biggest cheers from the audience. But even their rendition of "Float On" seemed forced and dreary, as though Brock has grown long since tired of playing "the hit." Predictably, the Miller High Life guzzling, imitation Bluto Blutarkski standing next to me, broke into spastic whoops and cheers, opening his cell phone into the air and waving it as though he didn't care. As for me, I had long since tuned out. I was already bored before the show even sank.
Crock Tock was also there, giving the humble rodents a more favorable review.
Modest Mouse: "Ocean Breathes Salty" from Good News For People Who Like Bad News (right-click, save as)
Modest Mouse: "Bukowski" from Good News for People Who Like Bad News (right click, save as)