Pop Playground
On First Listen: Modest Mouse

n First Listen is a regular column that forces Stylus writers to listen to bands that they’ve never heard—but by all rights should have—and charts the reaction.

The idea of taking writers and exposing them to music that they “should” have heard is a great one, because it’s looking at something very basic in our shared love of and appreciation for music: The idea of canonicity. But it also demands an awareness and acknowledgement of context. The reasons we listen to music, why we form the hierarchies that we do, are immensely personal. There is music we like because our parents loved/hated it, music we associate with certain people, times, places, events, emotions; and in the case of bands and albums we haven’t explored despite feeling that we should, there are usually personal, non-musical reasons there as well.

I trace my failure to have heard any Modest Mouse before “Float On” to the fact that in my family I’m the oldest child. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people (famous or not) describe how they found the music they loved as adults when they were kids thanks to a cool older sibling or similar figure. Without that sort of tutelage, I started older than many, and my exposure was piecemeal. Technically I was listening to “indie rock” because of the reputations of Radiohead and Spiritulized where I grew up (if they had reputations at all), but not really.

Especially not American indie rock, stuff like Guided By Voices, Built To Spill, Pavement, Sebadoh, and especially Modest Mouse. Country isn’t genre, certainly, but there was something very different from those bands and the Delgados, Mogwais, and Beta Bands I loved. I wasn’t consciously avoiding this music I had lumped together as a genre, but between my Anglophilia and the fact that they were just as expensive as their Continental cousins (in Canada you often pay import for both sides of the Atlantic) I didn’t get into even Pavement until my dad’s Columbia House flyer had two of their albums on for 99 cents apiece.

So from there, I never really listened to Modest Mouse—they were exemplars of a style I never thought of myself as particularly interested in, however many counterexamples littered my room. Of course, when you define a genre as something you’re not very interested in, it’s easy to move bands around as you discover you like them. Modest Mouse were referred to enough that in my mind that what I thought their music might be like was shaded in from other bands I’d heard and things I’d read and so on. Of course, Modest Mouse didn’t really sound like that, but they didn’t really sound different either when I first queued up The Moon & Antarctica.

My reaction, upon literal first listen, was distaste. A few songs leapt out at me from the gloom and murk but much of the sound was the kind of half-obtuse textured rock music that I often perceive as being dull and worthy. There’s a certain kind of small-minded pleasure in having prejudices confirmed, and I fully admit to feeling that: Modest Mouse sucked, I could write them off and move on to the next band, a strategy adopted by more and more listeners these days as a survival tactic against the sheer amount of music available.

But I listened to it many more times over the next few weeks. I do think that given the will to do so and the time, anyone is capable of loving any album. It doesn’t matter how much I think a given record sucks, if I make space for it in my life for long enough, I will eventually find myself humming the songs under my breath and wanting to keep it. I also believe that bad albums are those which are not worth the time it takes for this to happen. The Moon & Antarctica falls for me somewhere in the middle of this spectrum.

I probably wouldn’t have listened to most of it more than once if not for this article, but I now love nearly half of it, especially the opening four songs. “3rd Planet” was one that grabbed me initially, with its “your heart felt good” chorus as the perfect example of the Brock’s perverse positivity, and it leads nicely into the swooping (backwards?) sound that echoes throughout the sunny astronomical pop of “Gravity Rides Everything.” “Dark Center Of The Universe” is for me the only longer track on The Moon & Antarctica that actually works, a fabulously elongated rocker wherein Brock spits out the word “ass” in a very satisfying fashion. And while “Perfect Disguise” isn’t as great as the first three, its slow drift is a nice break.

I think my problems with much of the rest of the LP can be summed up by the fact that of those first four, I’d assumed that the slow one wouldn’t be the model for the next forty minutes. But after the momentary diversion of “Tiny Cities Made Of Ashes” (which sounds smug to me), that’s exactly what happens. “A Different City,” “Paper Thin Walls,” and especially “Lives” are brief oases in the middle of long stretches of turgidity.

But I like the way Brock writes lyrics: Nobody else I’ve listened to focuses on mortality and cosmology in the same way. The utterly gorgeous “Lives” is my favorite example, guitar and violin emerging like the sun after rain and everyone sings “It's hard to remember, it's hard to remember / We're alive for the first time”. Brock manages, despite the dour cast of these songs, to bring to mind the lesson that Douglas Adams always made central: One can be darkly pessimistic about human nature and yet still retain a wonderful optimism about the possibilities it possesses. It’s hard, but crucial, to retain our faith in the basic “okayness” of people and the universe even while being cynical.

And so although much of the music on The Moon & Antarctica leaves me baffled at some of the praise it’s received, I can guarantee that had I gotten my hands on this when I was still a teenager my reaction would have been very different. The bits here that are good, from the crunch of “A Different City” to the priceless line “Laugh hard, it’s a long way to the bank” from “Paper Thin Walls,” would have had me playing this on repeat until eventually every stray note would have engraved itself on my mind, until this would have been a major feature of my personal canon. While I’ll probably never love them, I can appreciate Modest Mouse, and I think I can even begin to understand what a fan of the band hears in them.

By: Ian Mathers
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