HOW SOON IS WOW? Johnny Marr w/ Modest Mouse, Electric Factory, Last Night
BY JONATHAN VALANIA FOR THE INQUIRER: I’ve never really been able to quite put my finger on what it is exactly that bothers me about Modest Mouse: Was it that they always sounded to my ears like The Sons Of The Pixies? Or, was it that they came up around the time I stopped believing in rock bands — which was, not coincidentally, when the Pixies’ broke up (not to worry, this was a temporary thing, for me and the Pixies). Either way, in the interim, Modest Mouse have become what the Pixies always wanted to be and had to break up and reform 10 years later to accomplish: a super-popular Pere Ubu, an abrasively artsy cult band for the masses.
The masses were well-represented at the sold out Electric Factory Thursday night (although everyone knows the really cool kids were at Peter, Bjorn and John). Unfortunately the same could not be said for Modest Mouse. After a tediously late start, Modest Mouse took the stage and frontman Isaac Brock made some oblique crack about wanting to play Uno with the audience and then the band lurched into “Paper Thin Walls.” Brock, who sings in three distinct voices in the space of one song — an hysterical shriek, a sinister lullaby voice and a desperate castrated falsetto — was flat in at least two of them on most songs. On record, multi-tracking and sound filters are used to stretch his thin nasal whine across the widescreen arrangements in fascinating ways. Thursday night, the vocals were mixed up front and bone dry, neither of which did Brock any favors.
Which brings us to problem number two: Johnny Marr. Don’t get me wrong, the legendary ex-Smiths guitarist can still make a guitar ring like a bell, but he seems totally miscast the play with Modest Mouse. What does a minimalist guitar band need with a guitar hero? Not that much, from the sound of the new We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank — listen to how much Marr doesn’t play. And he can’t sing, either — although not for trying during a number of wince-inducing vocal duets with Brock.
Lastly, this must be said: Modest Mouse are a total bummer. Seriously, every word of every song drips with unrelenting existential disgust. They are like that old joke where two old men meet on the street and the one says “How’s life?” and the other responds “You call this livin’?” — told over and over again. (Though admittedly they did hit the sweet spot with “Tiny Cites Made Of Ashes,” which slashed-and-shimmied quite smartly at the Elecrtic Factory.) And Brock looked the part. With his apple dumpling cheeks and vacant eyes, a too-small checkered shirt stretched over his pot belly, gloomily plucking a banjo, he looked like a Cub Scout in the middle of a jamboree in the bowels of Hell.
EVA SAYS: It was a dark and stormy night. Isaac’s voice gave out and all the clams he was blowing messed up the rest of the band. The crowd got really tense. It was awkward and embarrassing to watch. It didn’t even matter that Johnny Marr was there. The suck could not be stanched. Tragic, just tragic. D-
[Photo by JONATHAN VALANIA]