Mouse Ascendant 

Darlings of alt Modest Mouse get over big with latest album and a tour that brings them through Nashville

Darlings of alt Modest Mouse get over big with latest album and a tour that brings them through Nashville

What a difference a year makes. After a tumultuous stretch, including death, depression and a prison stint, Modest Mouse understandably figured Good News for People Who Love Bad News would be their Epic Records farewell. Instead, 12 months later, they're the band of the moment—a million-plus CDs sold and counting, copious media coverage, a transition from small clubs to concert halls, even a couple of Grammy nominations. The story is familiar enough: deserving indie hopeful, through hard work and talent, finally reaches a semi-mass audience. What's surprising is how little backlash they've received from insular scene gatekeepers—perhaps because Good News is also Modest Mouse's strongest album to date.

Mind you, their prior records are uniformly solid, boasting a distinctive sound and Isaac Brock's sharp songwriting, but that catalog remains somewhat distant and off-putting. For all the well-crafted noise, the albums are too claustrophobic, too formalist—like an intricate geometry proof. The breakthrough is less a reimagining of this aesthetic than an expansion. The music's jagged edges are now sweetened by a well-integrated grab-bag of sonic colorings: mellotron, timpani, tin whistle, pump organ, cameos by The Flaming Lips and Rising Star Fife & Drum Band. A typical mid-CD sequence runs from minor-key, banjo-tinged renunciation of Bukowski ("God, who'd wanna be such an asshole?") to Tom Waits-style dirge (dissonances courtesy of The Dirty Dozen Brass Band) to familiar herky-jerk rant balanced by an upbeat chorus.

The formal tension of the last of these is crucial and indicative. From the surprise MTV buzz cut "Float On" to the lilting, elegiac closer, Brock's songwriting is deep and varied. Though his signature croak remains lo-fi, his lyrical concerns mirror the band's musical expansion, his negations now curbed by something approaching optimism. "We were done with all the fucking around" may as well be a statement of purpose; the bemused, shit-happens worldview of "Float On" pervades the album, and "The World at Large" is sunny enough to close a sudsy installment of The O.C. "The power of positive thinking," Brock calls it.

More good news: Modest Mouse's drunken live theatrics—sometimes inspired, sometimes stultifying—are reportedly in abeyance. Though much of the sonic detail of Good News is sacrificed to the rush and clamor of in concert catharsis, their recent sets have been well-received, especially the encore rave-up "Cowboy Dan." Friday's show at Memorial Gymnasium, benefiting Vanderbilt Children's Hospital, kicks off a month-plus winter tour.

—Scott Manzler

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