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Notes of hope from Modest Mouse

The band's latest album, perhaps their best so far, is cheerful and upbeat, a sort of musical panacea for these times

Modest Mouse’s music has an eclectic feel. (Facebook/modestmouse)

Some of the best bands are also those that are often under-rated. Formed 29 years ago, Modest Mouse can easily slip under the radar of even the most hard-core rock fans. One reason could be that in nearly three decades they have released just seven albums, the latest of which, The Golden Casket, came out last month. But they have a cult-like following in the indie rock scene that was likely pleasantly surprised by the new album, six years after their previous release.

Originally from a small, rural part of Washington state, Modest Mouse are led by singer and guitarist Isaac Brock and drummer Jeremiah Green (bassist Eric Judy was the third co-founder). Both are in their mid-40s now. Though the line-up has changed many times over the years, it has remained centred around the duo of Brock, the lead singer, and Green.

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Modest Mouse’s music has an eclectic feel. From messy, minimalistic, aggressive punk to intricately arranged and perfectly layered pop extravaganzas, Modest Mouse can do just about anything. But their songs are almost always hook-filled treats that can reel in the fans.

Their first album came out four years after the band was formed. Titled This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About, it was about loneliness and isolation, and dreary journeys—common fare for indie bands of that era. What made Modest Mouse stand out was their use of instruments such as the upright bass, cellos and mandolins, not common among indie acts at the time.

This, and their tight compositions, gave the band a head-start that would win them critical acclaim and then some mainstream attention in the mid-2000s when Johnny Marr, the former guitarist of The Smiths, joined them for a while. In 2007, their album We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank became the first Modest Mouse album to reach No.1 on the US Billboards 200 list.

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But their talent had been on show even in 2000, when they released The Moon & Antarctica, a deep and moody album, predominantly acoustic and thematically melancholic, exploring death and depression. That dark mood was revisited more recently, in 2015, when the band released Strangers To Ourselves, a set of songs about environmental and societal concerns.

There’s nothing dark, however, about Modest Mouse’s latest album, The Golden Casket. It’s cheerful and upbeat, a sort of musical panacea for these difficult times. Musically, it may also be the band’s best work till date. Some of the music is instantly catchy but some of the arrangements are complex and may need repetition to appreciate fully. With their penchant for breaking formulae, Modest Mouse have always been an acquired taste, and the new album showcases their whimsical style well.

The album opener, Fuck Your Acid Trip, sets the mood for the songs, optimistic and steeped in positivity. For long-time fans of the band, it is a refreshing change in mood. For those who are less familiar with the band, The Golden Casket could be a good place to begin exploring Modest Mouse because the songs on the album are among the band’s most tuneful and accessible.

Nearly 30 years is a long time for an indie band. Of course, there have been several changes. But Brock and Green have remained faithful to the band’s core beliefs of experimenting with different styles while sticking to the indie ethos of not compromising. On The Golden Casket, for instance, many of the songs have a pop groove, and some, such as We Are Between, even have a danceable beat. Yet the band doesn’t refrain from experimenting with multiple instruments, changing sonic patterns.

Modest Mouse have always flirted with mainstream success. Many of their catchier tunes in the latest album have the hooks that make for great pop songs but the band remains fiercely indie. In some songs, such as the very catchy Walking And Running, an unexpected upright bass line gives it a unique feel. In Wooden Soldiers, Brock, seemingly in line with what the world is going through while in the throes of a pandemic, sings about making the best of the situation even as the world appears to be collapsing. In another song, The Sun Hasn’t Left, it’s a marimba that sets the pace for Brock, who sings about hope and the fact that the world hasn’t yet ended. For many fans, especially those who have stuck with the band for years, Modest Mouse are like comfort food, something you can count on to make you feel good.

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First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

@sanjoynarayan

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