A huge fan of Tortoises with a very small sample size once said “slow and steady wins the race” but in an industry that relies almost entirely on momentum and hype is taking an extended break from the album making rat race ever really a good idea?
Probably the most famous example of taking blinkin’ ages on a follow up album comes courtesy of one of our least favourite bands of all time, Guns N’Roses. The not quite as terrible as you’d imagine it would be Chinese Democracy finally landed in 2008, a full 15 years after their previous studio album, and even that album, The Spaghetti Incident was a series of covers of old punk and hard-rock tunes. Their last attempt at any original material was a further two years previously. Despite the delay and it being not all that great it still managed to shift six and half million copies, and crashed into the upper echelons of the chart across the world!
When The Beach Boys went into the studio in February 1966, few would have thought it would take a full 38 years before Smile finally saw the light of day. Whether it was internal resistance from the band, legal wrangles with Capitol Records or the increasing affects substance abuse were taking on the mental health of Brian Wilson, in 1967 the record was shelved, seemingly never to see the light of day again. Having avoided talking about, let alone performing Smile, at the turn of the millennium Wilson began to incorporate some of Smile’s tracks into his setlist and in early 2004, it was decided that they would recreate the album live. Following the success of the live shows, and with Van Dyke Parks back involved (largely because Brian couldn’t remember all the lyrics!) it was decided that they would head back into the studio and finally give the songs the album release they deserved. Smile was finally released in September 2004, and with an average Metacritic score of 97% it is now widely regarded as one of the greatest albums of all time.
If it’s taking some time out you’re after though, look no further than the rather wonderful Vashti Bunyan. The Newcastle born singer-songwriter was originally discovered in 1965 by the Rolling Stones manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, and after releasing singles on Decca and Columbia her debut album Just Another Diamond Day was released in 1970 on Phillips Records. Whilst it was critically well received, it struggled to find the audience to match the reviews and, disillusioned with the music industry she decided to give up on a music career and concentrate on raising her three children. In the ensuing 30 years, unbeknownst to Vashti, her album became one of the most sought-after records, fetching up to £2000 on eBay. The album was re-released in 2000 and a year later following an advice-seeking letter from Devendra Banhart, she became embroiled once again in the music industry, appearing on releases from the likes of Animal Collective and Piano Magic’s Glen Johnson. Finally a full 35 years after it’s predecessor Vashti released her second album Lookaftering on FatCat Records, produced by Max Richter and featuring the likes of Adem, Joanna Newsom and Devendra Banhart, it was a critical and, thanks to some well placed advertising synchronisations, commercial success! The so called “Godmother of Freak-Folk” would go on to release her 3rd and final album Heartleap in 2014 – a wonderful end to the career of one of the most surprisingly delayed careers anyone could ever have imagined.
There is a line in the opening track, Strangers To Ourselves, when Isaac Brock sings “how lucky we are that we are so easy, so easy to forget”, well if Modest Mouse were wanting to be forgotten they’re going about it the right way!
In eleven years from 1996 onwards, Modest Mouse released five, full-length, studio albums, in the eight years since up until this week they had released none. It is perhaps unsurprising that in those eight years the musical landscape has changed. When they released 2007’s We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank, it reached number one in the US Billboard Album Charts; when that sort of success is suddenly thrust upon a band eleven years into their recording career, you could probably forgive a couple of years off, forgive them for taking their time to make sure the follow up lived up to what was easily their most commercially successful moment to date…. but eight years?! To put that into some context Of Montreal released an album in 2007, they’ve released a further five albums since then! 2007 was the year that saw debut albums from The Klaxons; Arcade Fire released only their second album and Kanye West had only have one number one single in the US. We think it’s fair to say the musical world has moved on without Modest Mouse, the question now is have Modest Mouse moved on too?
The short answer is – no! Strangers To Ourselves unquestionably still sounds an awful lot like a Modest Mouse record! There were rumoured collaborations with artists as varied as Big Boi and Krist Novoselic, changes of producers, departing band members and world tours cancelled to concentrate on finishing the album, you’d probably expect it to at least show some signs of a departure from their previous sound, but in reality if this album had come out eight weeks after their last album, you’d be forgiven for expecting a little more variety!
This is all, somewhat inevitably, sounding like a major negative, but in reality, Strangers To Ourselves is not, it’s more a timely reminder of just what we’ve been missing while they’ve been away. For fans of the band, it’s quite easy to simply take this record as a welcome triumphant return for one the most unique and brilliant bands arround. Take the albums first single, Lampshades On Fire; it’s as good an example of the bands strange melding of College Rock and Gypsy Jazz as they’ve ever produced. The lively stacatto stabs of piano, the bouncing bass lines, the guitar lines that sound both entirely familiar and unlike anyone else, and that voice! Oh that voice, a sort of tuneful shout in your face, we’ve thought about it long and hard but cannot come up with anyone who sounds like Isacc – there’s the wildness of Tom Waits, a bit of Mr.E but basically he’s just a unique and brilliant talent. Modest Mouse might still sound exactly like Modest Mouse but nobody else has ever even come close! Lampshades On Fire also introduces a major lyrical theme of the album, because Isaac has been thinking about the future of the planet, and he doesn’t think it looks all that great! “Spend some time to float in outer space. Find another planet, make the same mistakes. Our mind’s all shattered when we climb aboard hopin’ for the scientists to find another door.”
It’s a theme he visits throughout the album. On The Ground Walks With Time In A Box, he’s declaring “the world’s an inventor, we’re the dirtiest thing it’s thought about and we really don’t mind.” while on Coyotes “mankind’s behavin’ like some serial killers.” It’s clear from this album that Modest Mouse are frankly a bit angry at humanity, there’s barely a good word for the human race within the albums near hour long running time; if the music wasn’t infused with Modest Mouse’s instinctive ability to make you shuffle your feet it could probably come across as way too much. Infusing a jaunty dancehall track with a heavy lyrical burden is one of our favourite musical tricks and on many of the albums moments it really works.
It’s not without it’s duff numbers, Pistol (A.Cunanan, Miami, Fl. 1996) manages to be even worse than it’s title, it’s just an LCD Soundsystem track over-produced to within an inch of it’s life, and being sung by The Wolf Of Wall Street, you can only hope lyrics like “I’ve got my cocaine in the glove box now the sunroof is down, oh wow!” and “I wanna zip-zip-zip-zip-zip-zip-zip-zip your pants, on down” are entirely tongue in cheek or mocking, otherwise they’re just woeful. Elsewhere Sugar Boats sounds like Blur messing about at the height of Brit-Pop a sort of bloated carnival inspired mess, it gets better as it goes along, and some people might like it as some light relief but it’s hard to argue that either track make the album any better, and they probably just contribute to an over long running time.
There are some great moments as well, Be Brave covers the same sleezy 1980’s, cop-show feel perfected by Timber Timbre on last years Hot Dream; the pulsing piano is a particular highlight, as is the almost spoken-word break down as Isaac declares “the world it don’t give a shit.” Ansel adds a delightful steel drum sound to the mix that gives it a jaunty feel that belies it’s tales of his brothers death in a mountain accident “the last time that you ever see another soul. No, you never get to know.” it’s a deeply personal, and very moving song.
Coyotes with it’s delicate finger picked guitar intro, and waltz beat played out by beautifully melodic backing vocals is just a beautiful piece of song craft, constantly hinting at a huge crescendo but always holding back and remaining a gentle sway. The Best Room is an excellent single, it’s an upbeat cousin of their mega-hit Float On, all sweet vocal melodies, complex percussion and superb break downs “ain’t it hard feeling tired all the time?” Isaac sings on one particularly sweet harmony, before regaling us with tales of the noisy family upstairs who “must have a fleet of rider lawn mowers” and the “novelist to my right who’s convinced every woman’s a whore” whilst trying to be set up with Isacc’s best-friends, it’s a musing on the commercialism and pointless nature of Western living, and stands out as one of their best tracks to date.
For new ideas that work, probably the best example is the albums closing track, Of Course We Know, starting off with an instrumental blast of marching drums and swirling electric guitars, it eventually resolves to a lone electric piano and Isaac waltzes in lamenting human’s lack of empathy for the world they’re destroying “the streets are just blankets and we sleep or their silky corpse. Covered up by them why would we ever wake up?” The whole song plays out like an existential crisis of a man who can’t see why he or humanity in general are here?; a man questioning if any good has come of the human race, “what the hell are we here for? We just do not know” he asks. He even pleas with a god he doesn’t believe in to explain it to him, as he puts it to “lay down your own soul.” He’s never sounded so raw, or honest in his assessment of his own lack of understanding. The Bon Iver-like production of the final line “of course we know” as the loan piano plays out is a rather beautiful end to the album.
Ultimately, what they’ve crafted is a very good record, but one that acts more as a reminder of what they are capable of rather than an example that they’ve got any new ideas. Where once they were thrilling and different, now they are beginning to sound solid. It’s great to have them back making music again, we just hope that by the next time they head into the studio they take a few more risks and find a way of putting a new spin on the sound they’ve taken so long to perfect.
Strangers To Ourselves is out now on Epic Records. Modest Mouse plays a series of dates throughout the UK at the start of July.