By Michael Waller
It’s been eight long years since the last Modest Mouse album and almost two decades since the first. The band has released some of the most formative records to the sound of indie rock since their inception, with albums like “The Lonesome Crowded West” and “The Moon and Antarctica” casting shadows over the current musical landscape as large as the Pixies’ “Doolittle” or Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.” Back in 2007, Modest Mouse’s music has tended towards a pop sound with an orchestral influence, incorporating strings, horns, and tighter three minute songs in favor of predominantly abrasive guitar shrieks and seven minute meditations on strip malls. Their new record, “Strangers to Ourselves,” attempts to capture both ends of the spectrum and fails miserably.
The first track seems to draw heavily on inspiration from Sufjan Stevens, steeped in slow strings and front man Isaac Brock’s hushed whispering about the universal subjects of confusion, regret, and forgetfulness. It’s all dreadfully boring. The next track, first single “Lampshades on Fire,” is perhaps the best. All of the Modest Mouse tropes of the post-“Good News” era are in full effect here, from Isaac’s drawled and occasionally growled pronunciations of judgment on suburban excess and characteristically jangly guitar sound to the added element of backing chorus vocals.
The fourth track, “Pistol,” features Isaac’s vocals pitched down and a basic pop sounding beat that serves as the intro, and immediately conjures comparison in the mind to P!nk or Nickelback. This song seems to replicate the awful music dental hygienists jam out to while they scrape your gums and inquire about your day, but somehow even worse.
There are some bright spots here and there in the album, though not profoundly luminous. One of the singles released as a teaser for the album, “Coyotes,” maintains a pleasing if not particularly interesting air from start to finish, buoyed by the acoustic guitar that mirrors the action of the coyotes’ tiptoeing sung by Brock.
When it comes down to it, it feels as though during this record’s incredibly long gestation period the band simply got together and checked off a list of elements essential to a Modest Mouse song. It sounds like amateurs trying to replicate Modest Mouse rather than the legends themselves breaking new sonic or thematic ground. At best, the songs on the album lack completely in any creativity or differentiation from the Modest Mouse canon, and at worst they sound like a parody of themselves.
Ultimately, “Strangers to Ourselves” sounds like a record that had too much time to stew. The instrumentals and ideas contained therein seem standard of the band if not indicative of how much they have aged. Where Isaac Brock typically shines as a source of insight, his reflections seem like the crusty complaints of an old man fed up with “kids these days.”
Michael Waller is a staff writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org