I've never really been able to put my finger on what it is exactly that bothers me about Modest Mouse: Was it that the band always sounded to my ears like the Sons of the Pixies? Or was it that they came up around the time I stopped believing in rock bands - which was, not coincidentally, when the Pixies broke up (this was a temporary thing, for both me and the Pixies).
Either way, in the interim, Modest Mouse has become what the Pixies always wanted to be and had to break up and reform 10 years later to become: a super-popular Pere Ubu, an abrasively artsy cult band for the masses.
The masses were well-represented at the sold-out Electric Factory Thursday night (although everyone knows the really cool kids were at Peter, Bjorn and John) [A review of that show is on C4].
Unfortunately, the same could not be said for Modest Mouse. After a tediously late start, Modest Mouse took the stage and front man Isaac Brock made some oblique crack about wanting to play Uno with the audience, and then the band lurched into "Paper Thin Walls." Brock, who sings in three distinct voices in the space of one song - a hysterical shriek, a sinister lullaby and a desperate falsetto - was flat in at least two of them on most songs. On record, multi-tracking and sound filters are used to stretch his thin, nasal whine across the song's widescreen arrangements. On Thursday night, though, the vocals were mixed up-front and bone-dry, neither of which did Brock any favors.
Which brings us to problem No. 2: Johnny Marr. Don't get me wrong, the legendary ex-Smiths guitarist can still make a guitar ring like a bell, but he seems totally miscast as a latter-day member of Modest Mouse. What does a minimalist guitar band need with a guitar hero? Not much, from the sound of the band's new We Were Dead Before the Ship Went Down - listen to how much Marr doesn't play. And he can't sing, either, although it's not for trying, as you could hear during a number of wince-inducing vocal duets with Brock.
Lastly, this must be said: Modest Mouse is a total bummer. Seriously, every word of every song drips with unrelenting existential disgust. It's like that joke where two old men meet on the street and the one says "How's life?" and the other responds, "You call this livin'?" - told over and over again. (Though, admittedly, they did hit the sweet spot with "Tiny Cities Made of Ashes," which slashed-and-shimmied quite smartly.)
And Brock looked the part. With his apple-dumpling cheeks and vacant eyes, a too-small checked shirt stretched over his potbelly, gloomily plucking a banjo, he looked like a Cub Scout at a jamboree in the bowels of hell.