When Modest Mouse first emerged in the mid-’90s, it would have been a brave man who bet the farm — or even a chicken — on the Issaquah, Wash., outfit ever becoming platinum artists. It was clear that singer Isaac Brock and his band could write a tune. That was amply demonstrated by their second collection, 1997’s The Lonesome Crowded West, and, in particular, ”Polar Opposites,” a remarkably beautiful lament about drinking by someone who, by all accounts, knows of what he speaks. But MM’s jagged brand of lo-fi indie rock didn’t seem destined to make cash tills ring. Then came 2004’s Good News for People Who Love Bad News, on which they often sounded like a completely different band. Brightly produced by Dennis Herring (Counting Crows), the CD found Brock & Co. fusing a dramatic variety of musical genres. Propelled by the success of the sort-of punky, sort-of dance-y single ”Float On,” the album shifted more than a million copies.
We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, again produced by Herring, represents less of a stylistic quantum leap, but it is hardly the work of people content to creatively stand still. Most notably, the lineup now features a new Modest Mouseketeer, one Johnny Marr. The atmospheric chiming of the legendary ex-guitarist for the Smiths adds another, often delightfully airy dimension to songs like the folky ”Missed the Boat” and the dreamlike, midtempo ”Fire It Up.” Meanwhile, Brock has never sounded more charismatic, or chameleonlike, as he alternately croons, spits, and bronchially howls through lyrics which, though as gnomic as on previous albums, boast a distinct nautical theme. Talk of oceans, boats, and ”saline tea” — whatever that is — pepper proceedings like some dark, hallucinogenic tribute to the Jimmy Buffett oeuvre. Finally, the band’s delight in mixing and matching different styles is very much intact, if not increased. ”Florida,” for example, features a fantastic soft-rock-styled chorus, but also elements of early Floyd, late Tom Waits, and (very) heavy metal.
MM virgins who think all of this sounds like a demanding listen would not be wrong. But easy entry points are provided by the brass-assisted first single ”Dashboard” (probably the band’s most hummable track to date) and the lovely, hushed ”Little Motel,” another song to benefit in spades from Marr’s silky fretwork. And, after repeated listens, even the most bizarre musical juxtapositions start to make a twisted sense, as they did on Good News. Indeed, this 14-track-strong album is very much good news for people who loved Good News for People Who Love Bad News.