By Dawn Pomento
What are the Flaming Lips doing on the newest Modest Mouse album, Good News For People Who Love Bad News? And why is Modest Mouse singer Isaac Brock impersonating Tom Waits on "The Devil's Workday"? Before pondering those questions, remember that Modest Mouse has for more than a decade been difficult to define. If non-initiates asked what Modest Mouse sounded like, a fan's response was likely to reflect shared sensibilities rather than sound evidence - hence comparisons to Pavement, which never made sense. Modest Mouse, as embodied by charismatic frontman Brock, was closer to trash-the-hotel-room, rock 'n' roll classicism than Pavement. There was always the suspicion that the trio could as likely implode as keep making music.
After The Moon & Antarctica in 2000 confirmed the band's seamless transition from indie to major label, and following recent changes in band personnel, Modest Mouse has evolved into a potent musical force. Some songs on Good News taunt the listener with vague recollections. The breathy harmonies on "The View" recall old New Order. Echoes of classic Talking Heads, circa 1977, are all over the place. But most songs, the best ones, sound like nobody but Modest Mouse, with lyrics that haunt the listener.
So why does Good News have Brock growling like Tom Waits and closing the CD with the Flaming Lips on a rousing fill-the-stage sing-along? Because the band is now ready to take some creative risks. Sometimes the results aren't fully satisfying by Modest Mouse's own high standards. But most of the 16 songs on the Good News are brilliant - and reassuring. Not only has Modest Mouse survived relative stardom, but the band continues to make exciting, incomparable sounds. •
By Dawn Pomento