Modest Mouse

Strangers To Ourselves

Written by: TL on 29/03/2015 12:51:14

Considering that their last album came out in 2007, it wouldn't be too surprising if some of our readers have a vague awareness, if any at all, of who Modest Mouse are. Yet most will likely recognise the sound of hits like "Dashboard" and "Float On", even if the song titles don't necessarily ring a bell. The Washington indie rock veterans' new comeback album "Strangers To Ourselves" marks their sixth since 1993 and the first to feature bassist Russell Higbee instead of Eric Judy, who had otherwise been a fixture alongside guitarist Isaac Brock and drummer Jeremiah Green, in a line-up that has seen other contributors come and go over the course of the band's career. To the group's credit, they have not returned to the recording studio empty-handed, as "Strangers To Ourselves" stick to their tradition for long albums, clocking in at 56 minutes and fifteen tracks, with the session reportedly yielding enough material for there to be a part two already being prepped as a follow-up release. Furthermore, what's ended up on "Strangers.." holds true to the "alternative" tag that's often assigned to the band, in sounding different from pretty much everything else and requiring quite the listening effort to acclimate yourself to.

The album gets started with its laid-back title track, which welcomes you with soft singing over mellow cellos and a relaxed upright bass rhythm. It soon gives way to the single "Lampshades On Fire", which is more symptomatic for the album in the way it paces ahead on a choppy beat, where there is, in fact, a clear, somewhat The Cure-ish, prickling lead riff recurring at the core of the song. Brock rambles and chants on top in his half-singing, half-speaking manner (think Shone or Mewithoutyou) and various alternative percussion elements come in from left and right, distracting you from the song's direction and making its inherent catchiness get to you in deceptive way. A similar theme unfolds in "Shit In Your Cut", where cowbells, claves and tambourines accompany fingers sliding on steel strings and Brock's lisping narrative, which in turn finds response from deep backing vocals. At this early point, the soundscape is almost oppressive, culminating in "Pistol" - the extended title of which, "(A. Cunanan, Miami, FL. 1996)", references the spree killer who shot the founder of Versace. Here Brock "sings" in an ironic "potato in mouth" style which is straight up grating to listen to. So far, the subtle, often backwards feeling melodies from his singing and guitar figures, fade in and out of focus between new layers being introduced via extra instruments or vocal parts, at best making for a hypnotic effect, at worst feeling excessive and cluttered, as exemplified in the six-minute "The Ground Walks, With Time In A Box", which at one point has elephant-like trumpeting pressing up against the guitar.

A considerable way down the stretch, things fortunately start to become - gasp! - a tiny bit more forthcoming, when "Wicked Campaign" takes over after the circus-like tuba of "Sugar Boats". The icy synth in the background provides a nicely uncomplicated foundation for the rousing guitar and drum patterns, and especially the light backing vocals make for a Band Of Horses-like bit of exhilaration. Following tracks like "Be Brave", "The Tortoise And The Tourist" and "The Best Room" all feel playful, but in a less erratic way. It's down here on the tail end of the track list that you feel like "Strangers To Ourselves" could have been a pleasant listen overall, but honestly you'll be forgiven for feeling exhausted as a listener long before you even make it here.

The true bummer is that even separately, there aren't really any songs on the album that are all that great. There are certainly no instantly convincing cuts on the level of Modest Mouse's mainstream hits, and even after several consecutive listens, you are more likely to come out on the other side with handfuls of "what the hell did I just listen to?" -moments rather than "wow, that was awesome, let me go back and hear that again!" And without that; without the "wow, that was worth it" -moments; "Strangers To Ourselves" soon begins to figure as an album that is simply too much. With so many instruments on so many songs, you'd expect the record to get in your head and heart in a way that lesser records can't, but the fact is, this one doesn't. The excess simply never feels properly justified, and, in that case, when the novelty has faded, what's really the point?

Download: Lampshades On Fire, Wicked Campaign
For The Fans Of: Arcade Fire, Shone, MewithoutYou, Bright Eyes
Listen: facebook.com/ModestMouse

Release date 17.03.2015
Epic Records

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