Reviews of Modest Mouse's sixth studio album 'Strangers To Ourselves' have seemed keen to label frontman Isaac Brock as an eccentric. You'd imagine, then, that the eight-year gap between albums has seen him fall down a Tom Waits-sized rabbit hole, enabling him to fashion a radically different kind of record. This assumption couldn't be further from the truth. As good as these songs are, they're noticeably less jagged and jarringly confrontational than previous efforts. By Modest Mouse standards, most of this material could even be described as 'safe'.
So, if 'Strangers To Ourselves' isn't a creative re-birth nor a dramatic comeback, then what is it? Well, the good ship Modest Mouse seems to have stayed in the same waters as last time we saw her. Yes, Johnny Marr is no longer aboard, but that's not really a big issue with a band as accomplished as this. Brock is still the lynch-pin to proceedings but, musically, there's definitely a sense that the band are happy in their primarily guitar driven sandbox. There are examples, such as 'Pistol (A. Cunanan, Miami, FL. 1996)', where the songs feel a bit looser, letting the band head in an unexpected direction. However, these seem to be experiments rather than statements of intent. Many of the 15 songs here fit into the established Modest Mouse mould; they're solid, but not remarkable.
Take, for example, 'Sugar Boats', where Brock showcases the ecological message that crops up a number of times during the album ("This rock of ours is just some big mistake"). Initially, it presents itself musically as some kind of carnival freak show with a piano and brass band propelling the song along. However, the familiar guitar lines throughout feel like they're trying to keep the song from straying too far off the map. It's a gloriously noisy concoction, but it doesn't really feel like it's been let off the leash. In essence, that's the problem with the whole album; there's too many missed opportunities to shock or surprise.
But when the songs are good, they're really good. A personal favourite is 'Wicked Campaign'. Brock's memorable phrasing and wordplay are in full effect ("You know I'm a b*****d and we only just met. I guess I probably shouldn't wear this big old sign around my neck") and, when coupled, with his slightly menacing delivery, it reminds you of the best that Modest Mouse has to offer. The track lays wiry guitar lines onto synths before a thundering chorus acts like some kind of catharsis. It's like a twenty-first century reworking of the type of thing Talking Heads used to do. Like I said, when the songs are good, they're really good. 'The Best Room' and the more sedate title track of the album immediately spring to mind as falling into this category too.
We return, then, to that question of what the record actually is. My feeling is that it's a noble attempt to pick up from exactly where Modest Mouse pressed the pause button, regardless of how the musical landscape has changed around them. There seems to be a peripheral acknowledgement that guitar-based indie is less popular now than it was in the last decade, hence the experimentation that creeps in. But Modest Mouse are certainly not apologetic for deploying their six-stringed instruments in their own unique way. The songs may not quite reach their high water mark, however it's good to have Modest Mouse back showing younger bands how a little bit of creativity can go a long way.
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