Veteran alternative rockers Modest Mouse are back with the strongest album of their career, “We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank,” and from the look of things it might be the album that propels them to the next level commercially. Modest Mouse scored a surprise smash single with “Float On” from its 2004 album “Good News for People Who Love Bad News,” but it reached a new career pinnacle this week as its new disc debuted at the top of the Billboard Top 200 Album Charts, a shocking achievement for a band well outside the pop mainstream. “We Were Dead” is arguably the oddest No. 1 album since Radiohead hit the top with its surreal epic “Kid A” in 2000.
Lead singer and primary creative force Isaac Brock has a frenetic and versatile vocal style that is immediately recognizable. Brock can switch from a David Byrne yelp to a Tom Waits growl to a frenzied Frank Black shout at the drop of a dime, and sometimes all within the same song. His voice suits the material, as Modest Mouse often sounds like a hybrid of sorts, with influences like The Pixies and Talking Heads fairly evident. Brock is also an outstanding songwriter, and his impressionistic lyrics are often strongly compelling. As commanding as Brock is as a front-man, Modest Mouse is far from a one-man band. Former Smiths’ guitarist Johnny Marr is now an official member, and his presence is immediately felt. Marr seems to have brought some focus and a more straightforward guitar-rock sensibility, although he doesn’t dampen the quirkiness for which the band has always been known. It’s a fascinating experiment, adding such a revered and visionary figure from a prior generation to a contemporary band at the peak of its game, and the results are positive.
“We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank” starts with a bang. Opener “March into the Sea” is one of the strongest tracks, with Brock’s fevered vocals setting the pace and Marr’s prominent guitar driving the song. “March into the Sea” marches directly into first single “Dashboard,” a great track with a subversive melody, beguiling repetitive lyrics and lilting string lines.
The hypnotic acoustic-based “Parting of the Sensory” is a gorgeous piece of work. Dark, brooding and beautifully produced, it is arguably the artistic high point of the album. “Missed the Boat” is unusually straightforward with a chorus so buoyant it sounds like a potential single.
“Little Motel” features a great vocal by Brock, emotive and dripping with feeling. “Spitting Venom,” at over 8 minutes, is the centerpiece of the album. After a pseudo-folk introduction, the track turns into a driving rocker and then builds to an extended progressive-rock finale. It’s a perfect example of the typical Modest Mouse song structure. Brock often writes mini-suits, with distinct sections that go off in unpredictable and surprising directions. The album lurches about stylistically, and often incorporates odd and non-traditional instrumentation that one might not normally associate with rock music. Experiments abound, and they are mostly successful.
Another plus for the album is the outstanding job by producer Dennis Herring. The warm, deep, crystal-clear production by Herring, who’s also worked with Counting Crows and Jars of Clay, is superb.
Despite the overall strength of the album, not everything works. At 14 tracks and over 62 minutes in length, “We Were Dead” could have benefited from some judicious editing. A few tracks -- “Florida," for example -- will not hold up to repeated listening. There is nothing that really screams “classic” like “Float On” or “Ocean Breathes Salty” from the prior album. “We Were Dead” is an accomplishment worthy of respect, but it may be too obtuse to truly love. That being said, on a chart loaded with American Idol also-rans and disposable pop/r&b stars of the moment, it’s nice to see a collection of strongly original and challenging material doing well. Modest Mouse could fill the role that Talking Heads held for so long: off-kilter rock that is unpredictable, outside of the mainstream, but compelling enough to be widely popular and acceptable to a massive audience. Its success -- and the similar recent success of Arcade Fire’s stellar “Neon Bible” -- indicates that there is still an audience for left-of-center material that has artistic strength, and hopefully the major labels will notice and consider this fact while they are busily preparing for the next Paris Hilton or Ciara release.
“We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank” is not easy to immediately digest, and falls short of being an absolutely triumph. But is ultimately rewarding and worth the time it takes to discover. Modest Mouse, especially now that Johnny Marr is a member, is a band that could be at the vanguard of experimental rock for a long time to come.