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“DD Review: Modest Mouse – The Golden Casket.”

Score: 7/10

In 2015 — when Modest Mouse released their last album before The Golden Casket, Strangers to Ourselves — Kendrick Lamar, Hop Sin and J. Cole ruled the world. Barack Obama was our president and any number of snide comments could be heard from trendy bartenders degrading “the indie scene” [1]. Our teenagers festival in South Bend devolved into like 20 different fist fights, they said. If you were of the opinion that somebody should just stick a fork in rock already, you were probably onto something. I mean, the preferred listening method of streaming even implied that musicians should have some background in “stickin’ up white boys” [2] as a way of procuring food and shelter.

All of this fear and loathing piled up in me to the point where I didn’t even listen to Strangers to Ourselves when it came out, despite the fact that I’d pretty much been obsessed with The Moon & Antarctica in college and had seen the band live in 2004 at the Royal Oak Theater. My Strokes – Is This it CD was real to me. My The Best of Big Star CD was real to me. Streaming music seemed like a grade A sham. 

And to be honest, this new Modest Mouse album is pretty much a sham. I have no idea what even made me listen to it. It’s just a sham where the chord progressions are pretty decent and the instrumentation is eclectic so as make the whole project listenable, despite all the platitudes, cliches and warmed-over 2004 wit like “I don’t like being watched by the TV”. 

But lots of things pi** me off about this band in 2021, to where I’d almost take the 2015 incarnation of them and that bizarro dirge “Pistol (A. Cunanan, Miami, FL. 1996)” and that album’s hopeless artistic subservience to We Were Dead before the Ship Even Sank (which albeit in my opinion is a slightly underrated album by the general intelligentsia). And it doesn’t even bother me that Modest Mouse are pretty much a supergroup with an apparently endless studio budget [3] and are possibly just downright lazy, releasing an album every six years (by the way that is one killer major label contract, with that lax of a release schedule, apparently). But they never seem to do anything else — Isaac Brock doesn’t even have a book of poetry out, despite the fact that his band’s name is based on a line from a Virginia Woolf short story, and despite the fact that he’s always saying bizarro things like “We’re freaking out like the sky is the ground”. 

And then there’s the fact that they write these cheese-ball songs like “We’re Lucky” which is this anticlimactic crap about being with his girlfriend (it makes Weezer’s green album sound like Marilyn Manson by comparison) and “The Sun Hasn’t Left” and the lip service of “There’s still something left / There’s still something left for you” that almost has a certain entertainment value for being so stridently pathetic and corny. It’s like Isaac, you did just call your album The Golden Casket, didn’t you?

Why he chose to call it that is beyond me but that’s another thing that gets my goat about this project, just that this depressing album title sctick is hopelessly hackneyed by this point, as are the quirky, goofy vocal delivery. What isn’t played out, and what was definitely pretty entertaining, I have to admit, was “Fu** Your Acid Trip,” this frenetic, textural pop tune built on a psychedelic guitar effect and quick chord progression that still almost bothers me for seeming like a sort of stupid human trick, like a deliberate stab at snowballing enough sheer entertainment value in life through stupidity to make for a bona fide rock album. It’s like Brock has to throw himself into a hole to relearn what climbing out of a hole is like — or like an attempt to create another Good News for People Who Love Bad News or The Lonesome Crowded West, instead of just doing something new and fresh. 

Still, this band “still love(s) rock and roll,” to quote Wilco, by and large, I think, and so the result is that these songs typically have enough tension, energy and commendable chord structuring as to make for a tolerable listen. Ugly Cassanova’s Ben Massarella provides an entertaining element as well, on percussion (I’m not sure if this qualifies Modest Mouse as a “supergroup” what with the departure of The Smiths’ Johnny Marr but Massarella was also in Califone for about six of their seven albums, my second favorite band on the planet). “We are Between” is a strident success as well, a sort of post-punk Smiths-hearkening romper that somehow doesn’t play as a rehash of “Dashboard” and “Strangers to Ourselves,” with some help from some more deliberate, lucid vocals, and some beautiful pump organ from Russell Higbee. The closeur, “Back to the Middle,” as well, tends to work, with one of the band’s best intros to a song since “Gravity Rides Everything” and the way it has of letting the guitar runs and instrumentation act as a bulwark for intermittent, refreshingly fractal vocal themes. It’s an old school Modest Mouse song, in other words, crafted in the spirit of “Trailer Trash” or “The Cold Part” and really at least half as good, which is to say pretty da** good. Eh, starting and ending on a good note — that certainly seems like more than most bands would be capable of mustering up in this day and age. 

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[1] I realize Modest Mouse aren’t indie and haven’t been since The Lonesome Crowded West but their fanbase tends to typically pretty part and parcel with denizens of Interpol and Ted Leo and the Pharmacists shows, what with their quirky approach to songwriting and brooding, scrappy lyricism blueprint. 

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[2] This comes from the heartwarming “white people sh**” Wu-Tang Clan and their charming hit “C.R.E.A.M.” 

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[3] According to Amazon The Golden Casket was “The twelve new tracks were produced with Dave Sardy and Jacknife Lee in Los Angeles and in Modest Mouse\x27s studio in Portland.”

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