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Good News for People Who Like Modest Mouse

 

Modest Mouse: Good News for People Who Love Bad News

Epic, 2004

Rating: 4.0

 

 

Posted: April 7, 2004

By Laurence Station

Good News for People Who Love Bad News finds Seattle-based indie rock stalwarts Modest Mouse in a transitional phase. The band's more indulgent tendencies (unwieldy, directionless jams; unfocused, splatter-effect lyrics) have been reigned in, in favor of exploring a unifying theme (the indifference of God). Now a quartet, Modest Mouse has yet to make a singularly coherent statement, but on its fourth full-length it shows it's a more mature, musically proficient unit. Good News could well be looked back on as the band's rite of passage, filled with energetic but reckless noisemakers and more studied, stylistically adventurous tracks.

Not that singer/lyricist Isaac Brock's general disposition sounds any sunnier than it has on previous releases. "I still haven't got anywhere that I want," he laments on "The World at Large." A hyper-aware feeling of discontent permeates Good News, a resigned sense that Death's sickle hangs expectantly in the air. Where The Moon & Antarctica took a cosmically broad perspective on life, Good News is decidedly earthbound, and covered in more mud than a gravedigger on a rainy day. The furious, maniacally grim "Bury Me With It" examines taking "it" with you ("it" representing everything from money in your pocket to the air we breathe), and at under four minutes, it embodies the notion that this formerly meandering outfit is battening down the hatches of its songcraft while retaining its preferred atmosphere of stormy, hyperactive chaos.

Thematically, much of Good News dwells on the role of God in the world. Brock forcefully addresses the notion of a formless, abstract architect of the universe, abandoning its handiwork after the initial design is finished. On "Bukowski" he vents, "If God takes life, he's an Indian giver," while railing about what a control freak God is in the first place. The brief but excellent "This Devil's Workday" (featuring a smoldering horn section courtesy of The Dirty Dozen Brass Band) is anchored by the defiant phrase "I am my own damn God," and flames out with a spot-on, throaty laugh worthy of Tom Waits, whose stylistic influence permeates the track. Brock doesn't reconcile his feelings about a Divine overseer so much as he expresses frustration at an often arbitrary and cruel world where seemingly good and decent people die while far less deserving souls prosper.

Mirroring the album's thematic cohesion, Good News showcases a Modest Mouse that has never sounded better musically. Bassist Eric Judy gets to show off his skills on the funky, vibrant "The View," while new drummer Benjamin Weikel's staggered-beat dynamics shine on the fantastic "Satin in a Coffin." Guitarist Dann Gallucci (last heard with the band on 1994's Sad Sappy Sucker) helps flesh out the overall sound, and also allows for Brock to concentrate on a variety of other instruments, from banjo to Rhodes piano.

Good News falters after a late-sequenced, organ and baby-noise interlude, although having an utterly guileless infant appear after so many tracks dealing with mortality and spiritual hand-wringing is a brilliant stroke. "Blame It on the Tetons" brings whatever momentum has been established to a screeching halt, and neither "Black Cadillacs" nor "One Chance" measures up to what has come before. Fortunately, the closing "The Good Times Are Killing Me," a collaboration with the Flaming Lips, reveals Brock utilizing his strangulated falsetto to great effect, wistfully opining on what a bummer too much of a good thing (read: drugs) can be, while backed by a drowsily hypnotic beat and nervously spirited pump organ.

The good news for Modest Mouse fans is that the band has crafted its strongest work to date. But what it truly hints at is just how great the group can be when all its ducks are lined up. Hopefully, the apocalyptically tenebrous Brock will stick around the music business (and the planet) long enough to exhaust its full potential.

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