Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Doyle was wrong before the album even dropped ...

My compatriot recently proposed that we extend our sporting disagreements to the world of music, an idea I like a lot despite the fact that I think we'll be somewhat limited by similar musical tastes. (Doyle, it seems, has far better taste in music than he does in, say, clothing or deodorants or women or baseball statistics.)

So I think it would be appropriate to begin with Modest Mouse. When I first broached the topic to Doyle of how much I had begun to love MM (this was years ago), he told me he didn't like them. "I can't handle the singer's voice," he said. I often hear that from MM neophytes, and indeed Isaac Brock's hoarse atonal growl does polarize listeners. It probably keeps far too many away from appreciating what I would argue is one of the five most important bands of this decade.

Yes, I thought about that statement before I wrote it, and no, I don't think I'm exaggerating. Modest Mouse passes the greatness test I recently discussed on Four Weeks (before that blog was bombarded by assholes and went on hiatus) in regard to writers: their songs sound distinctive and unique. You would never mistake a Modest Mouse song for another band, unlike other so-called revolutionaries like, say, the Strokes or the Shins. Modest Mouse does something musically that nobody else has done.

And they continue to innovate. Their new album, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, was released today. I bought it at 12:05 this morning at Zia. I was expecting disappointment: I'd heard a lot of message-board fanboys screaming "sellout" after listening to the leaked version; the single, "Dashboard," sounded suspiciously catchy and radio-friendly; I didn't really like their last album that much, and it remains my least favorite of the ones I own; I was IMing with Doyle just before I bought it and he said he'd listened to a few tracks and thought they weren't good.

I've been listening to it all day, on the ride home from Zia and then late last night as I tried to write, then today on my iPod as I walked to campus to teach, and as I walked home. And I disagree. Boy, do I disagree. Lots of great albums took me a couple of spins to really appreciate, but even after only two full listens, I'm in love with this album. I think it's fantastic. I'm not going to say it's their best work yet -- I'll need to give it a month -- but it's in the running.

In fact, my first impression is better than that. I listened to all the other MM albums retrospectively, long after they'd been released (even Good News..., which I didn't buy until a few months after it came out, and which sat unplayed in my CD rack for some time thereafter). I'm listening to this one as a new album, in the context of other contemporary music, including a few other new albums I bought at the same time: the new Arcade Fire, Bloc Party, and Explosions in the Sky releases, as well as the newest Built to Spill. And this album strikes me as clearly better. This albums strikes me not as another decent album by a good band, as seems to be the critical consensus, nor as a set of failed experiments indicative of their fade, to paraphrase Connor.

This album seems, to me, like a truly great band at its artistic peak. It's experimental -- in many ways it sounds nothing like their other albums -- and yet it's still distinctively them. They make their experiments work, integrate them into their existing oeuvre, solidify their reputation by subverting expectations. This is their Kid A.

That's really the best comparison I can think of, maybe the only one. I remember when Radiohead dropped Kid A. That album hit rock music like a bunker buster; it left a crater in a landscape littered at the time with Limp Bizkits and Kid Rocks, astounded critics, baffled fans, moved units, and created an entirely new sound for the band, one that shocked everybody but should have been obvious from their previous forays into electronica. Years later, its influence can be seen everywhere, from Bright Eyes to Bloc Party, post-rock to the Postal Service. That album permeated rock like depleted uranium. (Yes, I am stretching the bomb metaphor too far. Suck it.)

I remember the first time I heard that album. I loved The Bends and OK Computer-era Radiohead -- still do -- and was expecting something similar: tech-tinged rock. Instead I got techno-electro-pop-instrumental-rock, like post-rock before the term came to mean predictable instrumental music (I'm looking at you, Explosions in the Sky). I listened to Kid A for the first time -- downloaded illegally off of Napster, God I miss Napster -- and I thought, "What the fuck is this?" And almost simultaneously, I thought, "This is great!" And shortly thereafter, I thought, "No, this is brilliant."

We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank is a brilliant album. Perhaps because I've heard it used too often and too broadly and blithely by grad-school types (Really? Palahniuk's good, but is he really brilliant?), I try not to use that word very often. But I think this album might be brilliant, as in remarkable, as in clearly better than even the good music I've heard recently.

I've got more on this -- probably lots more -- but time constraints limit this post. Hopefully Doyle-on will disagree and spit some hot fire, so we can get all vitriolic and shit.

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