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LIVE REPORT: Modest Mouse
Sean Kitching , July 16th, 2015 10:53

Sean Kitching recounts his personal history of witnessing the Washington group, and reports on their performance at the Institute Birmingham earlier this month.

Photo by Alan Bolger

When I first saw Modest Mouse, supporting Built To Spill at Dingwalls in Camden in 1999, they were a noisy three-piece, all hypnotic rolling rhythms, abrasive guitar and the uniquely raw yelp of Isaac Brock's vocal. I was instantly hooked and my initial fascination only continued to grow over the years that followed, through intense live performances, in San Francisco and Long Beach as well as the UK, via subsequent recordings where the band continued to evolve their sound. For those only aware of the band's most prominent hits, 'Dashboard' and 'Float On', it's worthwhile pointing out that their relative success was built from the ground up, with constant touring from the time they left high school and set out fresh-faced on the road, as can be seen in the Pitchfork documentary on the making of their classic album The Lonesome Crowded West.

Formed in Issaquah, Washington, in 1993 by singer/guitarist Isaac Brock, bassist Eric Judy and drummer Jeremiah Green, and named after a passage in the Virginia Woolf story 'The Mark On The Wall', the band have built up a deservedly loyal following based both upon their stylistically diverse back catalogue and their reputation as a compelling live act. Having spent the last eight years intermittently working on material that finally saw the light of day in March this year, it's been some time since they visited these shores. Given that their only London date is the Calling Festival, I opt instead for travelling to the Birmingham show on the following day. The 2007 performance at ATP in Minehead was the last time I saw them play, and I'm eager to catch the band in a more intimate setting and lengthier time slot than Clapham Common would allow for. It's encouraging to see from the tightly compacted crowd, mainly composed of faces far younger than my own and cut through with a keen sense of anticipation, that I'm far from alone in my fond memories of the band, despite their lengthy period of absence.

Sadly, original bassist Eric Judy abandoned ship during the recording of the new album. For the Strangers To Ourselves tour, the original core members of Brock and Green are bolstered by Tom Peloso (who dates back to 2004's Good News For People Who Love Bad News) on keyboards and horns, ex-Man Man bassist Russell Higbee, percussionists Ben Massarella and Davey Brozowski and violist/multi-instrumentalist Lisa Molinaro. Continuing with Brock's canny knack of recruiting guitarists from other great bands, Jim Fairchild from Grandaddy takes over the slot once held by Johnny Marr as lead guitarist. It's an ambitious lineup, that even adds an extra trumpet player on certain tracks, which occasionally tonight creates a slightly muddy sound. It also makes a great chaotic squall of noise and adds an appropriately carnivalesque element to the proceedings, particularly on the tracks featuring euphonium and trumpet.

Reviews of Strangers To Ourselves have been far more mixed than those of the band's previous recordings, but I think it's fair to say that although it doesn't work anywhere near as well as an album as Good News… or We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank, it nevertheless still contains a number of excellent tracks. Opener 'Shit In Your Cut' isn't one of those, however, and whilst it certainly sounds far more impressive live, it still makes for a slightly underwhelming beginning. Things definitely start to pick up with skeletal, robotic funk of 'Tiny Cities Made Of Ashes,' and by the time the band strike up with the skittering beats and lovely, echoing guitar line of 'Dramamine,' everything starts to fall into place. Brock prefaces the song by asking the crowd, "Are you ready for this country music extravaganza you signed on for?" but the track of course, is anything but. Taken from 1996's This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About, and a long time fan favourite, the song's rhythm pans out slowly but expansively, leaving a lovely but detached sensation, like watching the countryside starting to flow by through the window of a train as it picks up speed, and is the first of the evening's many highlights.

Showcasing Brock's songwriting at its most pop-orientated, 'Lampshades On Fire' and 'Dashboard' get the crowd dancing and singing along and it's impossible to deny the powerfully inspirational nature of those songs' simple melodies. When the banjo comes out for 'Bukowski' and 'This Devil's Workday', a slight touch of backwoods craziness appears in Brock's eyes. A far cry from the skinny, mutton-chopped youngster disappearing in a mountain of oversized clothes depicted in the Pitchfork documentary, Brock remains stylishly hick in his flamingo-patterned shirt, imbuing every moment of his performance with an impassioned intensity. His voice remains one of the most unique and instantly recognisable in American alt-rock, capable of many subtle registers, ranging from the smooth country-inflected twang of 'Pups To Dust' and 'The Best Room', through the lopsided and lonely-sounding delivery of 'Custom Concern', the wistfully epic and increasingly strident cadence of 'Dark Centre Of The Universe' and the scratchy yelps and screams that drive a wonderfully propulsive 'Doin' The Cockroach'. As ever, it's a track that really gets the crowd dancing, Brock seeming to shake the words out of himself so that they come firing out of his mouth, ricocheting off of one another. The transition from the slow first part of 'Parting Of The Sensory' to its hugely epic ending is wonderfully rendered by the expanded line-up, with Brock cutting loose with the surreal, yet in its own way inescapably accurate lyric: 'Some day you will die and somehow something's gonna steal your carbon.'

We get the melancholy, ramshackle rumble of Out of Gas,' from TLCW, the steel-drum and calypso guitar inflected 'Ansel' (which may in fact be about Brock's brother, depending on how seriously one takes his commentary on the song,) 'The Tortoise And The Tourist', and final song before the encore, 'The Good Times Are Killing Me'. After much noise from the crowd, including some stamping from directly behind me by a fan who appears to be wearing stormtrooper boots, (or perhaps just heavy clogs) the band return with perhaps their most famous hit 'Float On.' It's a wonderfully uplifting pop song that's great to dance to, as is the new single 'The Ground Walks With Time In A Box'. Easily the best tonight of the new tracks, it's the most obviously new wave influenced of their numbers, along with the Talking Heads-esque 'Tiny Cities Made Of Ashes'.

Having kept a close eye on the band's setlists prior to tonight, I'm hoping for 'The View' as a final number. Instead we get 'Spitting Venom,' which builds from Brock's chugging solo guitar and vocal to a massive, soaring climax as the other band members join the fray. It strikes me then that whilst other bands may cover aspects of what Modest Mouse do, with these guys you get the whole deal - great mood lifting pop songs, powerfully epic pieces, quiet and lonely sounding confessional songs, carnivalesque Tom Waits like dirges and new-wavish, beat driven tracks impossible not to dance to. As a look at the setlists for gigs that follow tonight's event reveal, Brock seems keen to keep rotating songs from his back catalogue so that there's plenty of variation from night to night. As a long time fan, this pleases me immensely, as does the news that another new record is already in the pipeline. Just don't leave it so long next time guys.