CD Review of We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank by Modest Mouse

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We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank
starstarstarstarno star Label: Epic
Released: 2007
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After almost ten years of oddly titled, (mostly) critically acclaimed albums with little or no commercial success to show for it, Modest Mouse finally broke through in 2004 with “Float On,” a single from Good News for People Who Love Bad News. Listening to that excellent album, it’s actually not too hard to see why the band avoided success for so long. Isaac Brock’s warbled vocals are an acquired taste (to say the least), and while the group was pretty focused on “Float On,” they otherwise have a tendency to delve more into noise than into music. Modest Mouse learned a valuable lesson with Good News: Brock’s tortured singing needs approachable melody; otherwise, the music will lack balance (and no one is going to buy it).

Three years later, Brock and Co. have submitted another oddly titled album -- We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank -- for our listening pleasure. It’s immediately clear that the band didn’t forget what brought them success in 2004, as three of the first four tracks -- “Dashboard,” “Fire it Up” and “Florida” -- would be considered radio-friendly, a term that now, with the rise of Internet and satellite radio, seems to be a bit more forgiving than it has in years past. It’s a good thing too, because this is a band that deserves attention.

The album is a little more polished than its predecessor, and the “WTF?” moments on Good News (“Dance Hall,” “Dig Your Grave” and “Interlude (Milo)”) have been replaced by more palatable, proper songs. So are they playing it safe? Not really. Brock’s lyrics are as introspective (and as baffling) as ever. Take the chorus of “Florida” (arguably the catchiest track on the disc): “It was always worth it / That’s the part I seem to hide / And the busy ant empire / Put all your clothes inside.” Um, OK...

Shins frontman James Mercer provides background vocals on that track as well as two others -- “Missed the Boat” and “We’ve Got Everything.” Brock isn’t in any danger of being shown up by Mercer, and the two distinct vocals almost sound like they belong together. (Curious? Listen for Mercer’s repeating “we know” behind the Brock’s chorus in “We’ve Got Everything.”)

The bottom line is that anyone who liked Good News will probably dig We Were Dead, and even though the latter doesn’t have a hit single on par with “Float On,” the gorgeous melody, pounding beats and cryptic lyrics are all there (in spades). The pressure to follow-up a breakthrough is considerable, and while Modest Mouse didn’t take a big step forward, they didn’t take a step backward, either.

~John Paulsen