Album art for 'Strangers to Ourselves'.
Typically when a band starts a series of self-congratulating releases, like B-side albums (No One's First and You're Next), large re-pressings of old albums (Moon & Antarctica, 2004), live albums (Baron Von Bullshit), it signals some kind of creative stagnation. The band's first release in 8 years, "Strangers to Ourselves," is nothing close to stagnated. The album was released this week (March 17, 2015), and the band has already promised a follow up as soon as possible.
Despite the eight years between albums, "Strangers to Ourselves" smoothly transitions from older Modest Mouse albums. However much has changed for the band in those eight years. Eric Judy, long-time bass player left the band, and it didn't go unnoticed. The harmony of Isaac Brock, singer-guitarist, and Eric Judy built the band's unique sound. Even more, Johnny Marr (ex-The Smiths) left the band after just one album. They changed producers during the recording process. Somehow with all these changes, "Strangers to Ourselves" sounds nothing less than classic Modest Mouse.
Interview with Isaac Brock about 'Strangers to Ourselves'. Courtesy of CBS.
The first single off the album, "Lampshades on Fire," has been floating around as a live bootleg for over a year. It was nothing to run home about--but Modest Mouse has never been a band of singles. Each Modest Mouse album plays like a concept album. There are always recurring themes in both the lyrics and music, and "Strangers to Ourselves" doesn't fall short. The track commentary B-side offers some interesting--but often absurd--insight into the idea of each song. Although you won't listen to it more than once, or even all the way through, the B-side is great for fans of the album, "Sad Sappy Sucker," and it's ramblings of insanity between songs.
The songs "God is an Indian and You're an Asshole" and "Coyotes" show a return to the neo-folk sound that seems to only exist through Isaac Brock, and was notably missing from the last album. You could seamlessly transition from anything off "The Lonesome Crowded West" to either of these songs. This is a testament to Modest Mouse's sound. Nearly twenty years since the release of "The Lonesome Crowded West" and their music hasn't changed beyond recognition, become repetitive, or turned into some bizarre act of self-parody.
The song, "Pistol (A. Cunanan, Miami, FL. 1996)," is the kind of unique POP culture parody that Modest Mouse fans fell in love with in the nineties, but distinctly for the millennial. The song shows the influence of electronic music on the new album. The long synth solo at the end of the song brings the chaos of Isaac Brock's guitar playing into a new realm.
Genre blending has always been a crucial feature of Modest Mouse's sound. "Strangers to Ourselves" sees the band experiment with some new sounds. Like the steel drum and Latin rhythms on the track, "Ansel." And of course, there's plenty of banjo spread over the entire album. The song, "Sugar Boots" sounds like a Polka band from a circus in hell, but somehow, Modest Mouse pulls all these sound into one tight cohesive bundle.
The last album, "We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank," demonstrated a change in the band. With the addition of The Smith's guitarist, Johnny Marr, the music seemed to be filtered through some kind of Rock structure formula. Marr's heavily melodic guitar objectively seems to match Isaac Brock's similar approach, but ultimately the songs are watered down and overly self-conscious. Rather than unexpected developments, the songs followed a more typical, 'intro-verse-chorus' structure. Marr has left the group for this album, and as great as The Smiths are, Modest Mouse sounds better without him. Just listen to "The Ground Walks, with Time in a Box"