Modest Mouse are arguably the biggest band to come out of the underground scene since the grunge era. Their effervescent 2004 anthem “Float On” is so perfectly engineered that it’s charted three entirely different times (first in its original form, then reworked into pop hits by Pink and Lupe Fiasco); the campfire-handclap sound the group helped pioneer became mainstream and exploded into a genre unto itself.
In the years since their last release, 2007’s We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, the band have become workhorses on the festival circuit and seemed to be slipping into a well-deserved, cruise-controlled middle age. But Modest Mouse work by their own inscrutable logic, so instead of returning with an album of material made for outdoor sing-alongs, they’ve thrown back to the squirrelly experimental roots that produced their 1997 cult classic The Lonesome Crowded West. Group mastermind Isaac Brock hasn’t lost the prodigious hook-writing chops that were always there, even at their most jagged: First single “Lampshades on Fire” is a punchy, seesawing winner, and even if the jaunty “The Best Room” doesn’t sear its melody into your brain as immediately as “Float On,” it still shares that paradoxically weightless rock stomp, with a lovely, masterful two-part bridge. The album’s real heart, though, is in the spots where Brock lets his eccentricities run wild. “Pistol (A. Cunanan, Miami, FL. 1996)” is named for the man who murdered Gianni Versace, and is as deeply creepy as its subject matter. It’s as strange as “Lampshades” is accessible, a tricky move pulled off expertly, and proof that the band’s found a vital second wind. A
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