The Drama You've Been Craving
Monday Aug. 7, 2000
Modest Mouse's Soundtrack To Freedom
A veteran band from the Northwest provides the sounds for escape.
By Michael Goldberg
I've been driving north a lot lately, away from the city. Inevitably, when I've started to hit the highway, the soundtrack has been Modest Mouse's The Moon & Antarctica (Epic).
Driving north, heading away from the tensions created by too many people in too little space, it takes less than an hour to transport yourself to another place, and what feels like another time. It's amazing how insular a city or cities can be.
I travel between San Francisco, L. A. and New York with some frequency. If you're in the Internet-music biz, all three places, though very different, can seem strangely similar: attuned to the same rhythm, pace and pop-culture channel, if you will. In a sense, the entrances to N.Y.C.'s Other Music and S.F.'s Aquarius Records two awesomely eccentric record stores could lead to the same place.
Head away from the city, head north, and things change. They slow down. Nothing seems quite so urgent. You see huge landscapes hills, mountains, plains. The Internet-music business suddenly seems like just one grain of sand in a beach that goes on and on and on.
Modest Mouse understand. The Issaquah, Wash., band's The Moon & Antarctica is a journey to ... well, somewhere else. As vocalist/writer Isaac Brock sings, over and over and over, "So long to this cold, cold part of the world."
In the intensely rocking "A Different City", Brock sings in a way that leaves you not quite sure whether he's pulling your leg, or dead serious: "I wanna live in a city with no friends and family/ I want to look out the window of my color TV."
When "A Different City" ends and the ethereal "The Cold Part" kicks in, it's as if you've just driven over the pass, and a whole new landscape, one you've never seen, stretches out before you. "I don't want you to be alone down there," Brock screams over a thundering rock track in "Alone Down There."
Modest Mouse a trio comprising bassist Eric July and drummer Jeremiah Green, in addition to Brock have been around a while. They recorded for cool indie labels (K, Up) more than seven years before recently signing with a major, Epic.
For whatever reason, I've managed not to pay attention to them until now. Which is good for me, because when I put on their new album I find myself listening to the work of a band that has really learned how to turn its ideas into powerful recordings.
The Moon & Antarctica is an epic, sprawling work. The music includes all kinds of diverse elements (rock guitar, classical violin), all coming together as a coherent piece. It often sounds like nothing I've heard before; if Pavement, Guided By Voices, and the earlier work of John Cale, Built to Spill and the Pixies are on your A list, you'll likely find this album fascinating.
It begins "Everything that keeps me together is falling apart," and ends with "And the one thing you taught me/ 'bout human beings was this/ They ain't made of nothin' but water and shit."
Band leader Brock has said he "wanted to make a really dark landscape, musically and lyrically." He's certainly succeeded.
And yet, despite his intention, The Moon & Antarctica also holds out hope in the music, if not in the lyrics.
Great rock is like that. Even when it examines the worst in human nature, there is the implication that things can be better.
And sometimes, anywhere other than where you are right now is where you wanna head.
In The Game
Jurassic 5, QualityControl (Interscope): From the clever cover art the front shows the five-member crew wearing headsets plugged into a tree stump; the back has a turntable arm with the needle picking up sounds from the tree rings to the finale, "Swing Set" (track 15!), Jurassic 5 deliver on this, their major-label debut. The samples are clever and not particularly obvious (Sandy Nelson's "Big Noise from Winnetka," Quincy Jones' "The Hot Rock," Blowfly's "One Less Dick"), but it's the message(s) and the vocal performances that knock me out. Just get an earful of "Laused" and tell me this doesn't have plenty of "moments of truth," as the great Gang Starr might put it.
Grandaddy, The Sophtware Slump (V2): I know it's been out a while so what? This quirky soundtrack to a version of the future is still on my Top 10 Albums of Year 2000 list, months after I started listening to the advance. Singer/writer/producer Jason Lytle has a little bit of Neil Young in his voice and Radiohead in his production style. I bet he's read both "Snow Crash" and "Neuromancer," too. And the band comes from Modesto definitely a plus.
Bill Flanagan, "A" (Random House): Many have tried, and many have failed, to write a credible, smart novel about the music business. Flanagan, once editor of Musician magazine and now an exec at VH1, has seen enough of the inside to get it right. There are no heroes in this tale of back-stabbing, selling out and self-destruction. You wish A man Jim Cantone, who starts out semi-innocent, would rise above the muck, and he nearly does. But even Jim can't wash the dirt off. He's corrupted, along with nearly every other character. Dark? Oh yeah.
Michael Goldberg is the president of insiderone.net. He founded Addicted To Noise in 1994.
© 2000 Michael Goldberg. All rights reserved.