Wednesday, November 4, 2009

#50. Modest Mouse - The Moon and Antarctica (Epic, 2000)

It's here that I feel I should reiterate that the numbers associated with each write-up aren't indicative of where the albums would place in my actual list of the best albums of the decade. I basically took the top 10-15 for each year and condensed them into 100 posts going up each yearly sublist in sequence. So this receiving such a low placement is simply because The Moon and Antarctica wound up as my #5 for 2000. In actuality it's probably in my top 20 if not top 10 for the decade, but my methodology being what it is we get it at the cusp of the upper half of the writeups. It deserves better, but I'm not about to alter this system to serve each slighted album just yet.

But enough about the ways that my system is flying in the face of making this an actual ordered list, let's talk about the great major label breakthrough that never was. Modest Mouse never quite seemed poised for any kind of popularity outside the increasingly large indie subculture. Isaac Brock's vocals were manic to the point of unapproachability, his guitar playing was so heavily reliant on dissonant harmonics and divebombs that for all its originality it probably would send a good portion of common listeners and the songs that he and his cohorts, bassist Eric Judy and drummer Jeremiah Green, wrote weren't exactly the kind of thing that would set any sort of mainstream listener's ears alight. Yet they got snapped up by Epic Records a few years after crafting one of the 90s' most highly praised indie landmarks. It didn't make a lot of sense at first, at least to me; this wasn't like the mid-90s where any band, no matter how out there, could get hitched to a major label if Nirvana gave them a name-drop in an interview, so somewhere in the recesses of the Epic offices someone must have thought that Modest Mouse were what the people wanted. It was probably in this same back room that they gave Isaac the Clockwork Orange treatment except with images of puppies and bunnies to make sure he'd make an actual popular anthem of positivity after the commercial disappointment of The Moon and Antarctica. Really, how else do you explain "Float On"?

So yeah, eventually Modest Mouse delivered an unqualified commercial success but as far a I'm concerned it came one album too late. Don't get me wrong, once you get past the un-Modest Mouse-ness of it Good News for People Who Love Bad News is a pretty good album and one that I can't fault for giving MM a breakthrough, but compared to The Moon and Antarctica it's a sub-par release at best. Of course comparing the two is kinda stacking the deck in the earlier album's favor; after all, TMAA managed to eclipse something as unambiguously awesome as The Lonesome Crowded West while giving the spotlight to the band's less confrontational side, a side that hadn't gotten much of a workout previously. It represents that rare album where a band tones down the elements that made them stand out previously, in MM's case the reliance on Brock's harsher vocal moments and guitar stylings, and that actually resulted in a better album. The fact despite them dialing back the confrontational stuff it still sounds definitively like a Modest Mouse album makes it that much more of a revelation to me.

There's also a level of cohesion here, both thematic and sonic, that probably pushed it over the rest of MM's catalog to become my favorite thing they've done. I remember a few years ago I was assigned this for the Go Review That Album Game over at RYM and started to see the connection between the title of the album and the overall tone of the album, namely tat we've got an album that's at its heart about escape named after two of the last pure places known to man. There's a sense throughout the album that Brock wants to get away from everything and start fresh while making sure that anyone he's leaving behind knows that this will work out in the end. The more I think that concept through in relation to Brock's lyrics it's become one hell of a depressing album underneath all its well crafted melodicism. Lines that initially struck me as hopeful or observational take on more and more melancholy with each listen. I'd figured that "3rd Planet" was about the pain of losing a child from the first time I heard it, but it only recently struck how profoundly sad the 'if you go straight long enough you'll end up where you were' coda is; wrapping up a song about the most profoundly painful loss a parent could go to with the idea that as long as you keep going forward you'll get back to how you were before the tragedy is the sort of empty platitude that strikes me as more depressing than enlivening. The stretch from "Dark Center of the Universe" through to "A Different City" is about as visceral as the album gets, but it's also quite hard to take on a few levels, as Brock seems to get meaner and meaner towards anyone in his vicinity before losing himself in the fantasy of getting away from them even for a minute. After that things get more contemplative and emotional - "Alone Down There" especially floors me these days after years of seeing it as just that little thing between the stunning "The Cold Part" and "The Stars Are Projectors" - but there's a sense of isolation that permeates the whole set up until closer "What People Are Made Of." The result is that the album feels a lot more like a single unit than the, admittedly great collections of songs that its predecessors amounted to in the end. It's the sort of thing I look for in my absolute favorite albums, and the increased depth it gives to what would seem to be weak links is always welcome.

There's also the fact that as an album it sounds absolutely phenomenal. Gone are the loud, in your face, scratchy lo fi production trademarks that lent the previous MM albums a great deal of character, replaced by a smooth but not overly plastic-y sound that allows for both the more melodic and delicate elements to shine while not discounting the more rambunctious outbursts like "Tiny Cities Made of Ashes" and "What People Are Made Of." Producer Brian Deck brings the sort of nuance and depth that he's used to great effect with his usual projects, Califone and Red Red Meat whose Ben Massarella and Tim Rutili feature on a few tracks each, to this set of deeper and more nuanced songs and the results are light years beyond what I'd have expected MM to be capable of sounding like. It goes back to this still sounding distinctively like a Modest Mouse album while bearing so few of their earlier trademarks. Deck's production underlines all the right qualities and gives each member the sort of focus that wasn't possible on their earlier releases' lo-fi production jobs. That's not a slight on the prior pair of MM albums' sound, but there's something impressive about how well Deck renders what had up to this point been a strictly lo-fi outfit with such a hi-fi yet not over produced sound. He was the right man for the job here and it shows.

So yeah, definitely better than the 50th placement would indicate. The more times I listen to it - at least 5 times in the last 2 days - the more obvious it is that this might be the single most accomplished album that these guys will ever put together. Given their seeming embrace of the more populist sound of the pair of albums that came in The Moon and Antarctica's wake it seems unlikely that thaey'll ever recapture the magic they had here, and that's a damned shame.

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