nowListening: Strangers to Ourselves by Modest Mouse

All lyrics by and property of Modest Mouse.

Modest Mouse is another of those bands that I hated at first. I remember when “Float On” invaded the airwaves, and played approximately every five seconds on every single radio station, and it just plain grated on my nerves.

Then a DJ at my local alternative station decided to break the mold and play “Bukowski”, which I found interesting. After that, “Ocean Breathes Salty” and “Bury Me With It” replaced “Float On” and cemented Modest Mouse as one of my favorite bands. In time I would even come to like “Float On”.

I like bands that don’t sound the same with every album they put out. I like Good News for People Who Love Bad News, I like We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, I like The Moon and Antarctica, and I like various other songs from their past discography that I’ve heard over the years. I love the ironic, clever lyrics and titles, the anger present in Isaac Brock’s voice even when the accompanying music ventures into zany, even goofy territory, and I love Jeremiah Greene’s complicated, addictive drum beats.

There has always been, however, a strange duality to Modest Mouse’s releases. I tend to absolutely love about half of each record and not really care for the rest. In an even weirder turn of events, I do like those songs I don’t care for—while I’m listening to them. It just usually takes some out-of-the-ordinary turn of events to get me listening to them.

Eight long years went by without a new release from Modest Mouse, so I hoped they were working on something special. Finally they announced Strangers to Ourselves, which I promptly pre-ordered; Modest Mouse is one of a very few bands whose music I can easily pre-order without hearing a note of, because I know I’m going to get something good out of it.

What I got was probably the first Modest Mouse album where I love almost every song.

Strangers to Ourselves

The album starts off slow, with “Strangers to Ourselves”. Honestly, it’s a little boring for an opener; I’d like it a lot more as a minute, minute-and-a-half tune, but it lingers for three and a half. It stands in stark contrast to other openers; “The World at Large” is a slow and lethargic song, but I love it for its clever lyrics and playful melodies strewn throughout the track. “March Into the Sea” is a fun opener for how loud and angry it is, and “3rd Planet” is the song that turned me on to the band’s earlier discography in the first place. “Strangers to Ourselves” just doesn’t pack the same punch as any of them.

The album takes a sharp turn for the better with “Lampshades on Fire”, a faster, upbeat tune that sets the environmentalist tone found through most of the album. It’s a good example of that irony I mentioned earlier; the song sounds happy and upbeat while Isaac Brock belts out frustrating, angry lyrics like “Pack up our things and head to the next place / Where we’ll make the same mistakes.” After this is “Shit in Your Cut”, an odd song that reminds me of something off of Brand New’s Daisy. It’s darker and slower but just as much fun.

If “Shit in Your Cut” is like a Brand New song, “Pistol (A. Cunanan, Miami, FL. 1996)” sounds like the band’s attempt at a Nine Inch Nails tribute. A quick Google of the title suggests this song is probably about the formative years of a certain serial killer. “Ansel” continues the theme of upbeat-sounding songs with dark, disturbing meanings, this one about how Brock never patched things up with his step brother before he died in an avalanche.

“The Ground Walks, With Time in a Box” is another fun one. Lyrically, it reminds me of the “beauty in nature/science” themes found on The Moon and Antarctica, at least partially, as it seems a little bit more sinister toward the end. I love the lead guitar and the multiple male/female vocal chorus, something present in a few songs on the album. The addition of feminine vocals in general to Modest Mouse’s sound is a refreshing and welcome one, and it works well.

If I had written this post a week ago, I would probably mention how much I dislike “Coyotes” right about now, but it ended up growing on me. I’m not fond of the lyrics for the verses basically being the same thing but in reverse order, but I do love the brief bits of acoustic guitar that pop up before the chorus. “Pups to Dust” is my current favorite. The first time I heard the main vocals arguing with the backing vocals I laughed out loud and it has that flowing, airy lead guitar I’ve always loved in Modest Mouse. “Sugar Boats” is another favorite of mine; if steampunk has a sound to it, it’s this song. “Wicked Campaign” slows things down again, while “Br Brave” is one of the few songs I don’t particularly care for. It’s all right while I’m listening, but it’s not one I’ll go out of my way to listen to.

Well I’m not a doctor, but I’ll sell you an itch
I could apologize, but then a bit more nothing’d exist
So the world’s got plenty of good and bad liars,
But our lies should come with chariots and choirs!

—Modest Mouse, “Wicked Campaign”

“God is an Indian and You’re an Asshole” is a funny little interlude set before “The Tortoise and the Tourist” which is probably the most important song on the record. Every Modest Mouse record has at least one song I’d argue has an almost literary quality to it, and this is it on Strangers to Ourselves. It’s heavy and dark, very cynical, it’s a good thing it’s sandwiched between “God is an Indian and You’re an Asshole” and “The Best Room”.

There was this tortoise, its shell was covered with jewels
And had been since time began
It knew the world through all its histories
And the universe and its mysteries
One day it came across a man

The two were talking,
The tortoise offered to tell him about the future and how the universe ran
Oh, the man killed the tortoise, took its shell, and with a song on his lips, walked off again.

—Modest Mouse, “The Tortoise and the Tourist”

Speaking of, “The Best Room” is another fun one, a heavy criticism of western culture. The last minute or so escalates into a crazy, fast summary of the entire song preceding it, accompanied by a wild lead guitar part and a sudden dropoff ending the song.

“Of Course We Know” closes the album, and it’s another one I don’t really go out of my way to listen to. I love the theme of it, the lullaby-like tone accompanying a criticism of complacency, but the song is very long and repetitive. It’s one I have to be in a certain mood to listen to.

On the whole, Strangers to Ourselves is critical without being preachy, it’s dark but fun, it has a strong theme that it carries through to the end. It’s easily my favorite Modest Mouse album. It was worth the wait, but I still hope the next one doesn’t take quite so long to come around.

Go reckless, unharmed
The shut-ins they’re well-armed
Well we all led the charge,
‘Til we ran aground in our party barge
Every little gift was just one more part of their grift
Oh yeah, we know it.
The best news that we got
Was some dumb hokum we all bought
Let’s go reckless, feeling great
We’re the sexiest of all primates
Let’s let loose with our charms,
Shake our ass and wave our arms,
All going apeshit.

—Modest Mouse, “The Best Room”

nowListening: Cope by Manchester Orchestra

My favorite band is Brand New. I have a list of reasons far too long for this blog post, but one of them is their tendency to introduce me to other great bands, through covers, tours, or the occasional “This song is called ‘Go See Explosions in the Sky.'”

One of Brand New’s most famous tours was a series of shows they played with Manchester Orchestra and Kevin Devine. You can find some high-quality videos from this tour on YouTube, and I recommend doing so. All three artists and their opening acts gave fantastic performances.

Kevin Devine and members of Brand New and Manchester Orchestra covering “Holland, 1945” by Neutral Milk Hotel, another of my favorite bands.

That’s how Manchester Orchestra appeared on my radar. Eventually I would hear their song “Wolves at Night” on the radio. I thought it was okay, but my second radio experience with Manchester Orchestra fared much better: It was the song “Shake it Out”, and from then I was hooked. Fast-paced guitars and explosive vocals culminate in a noisy but still melodic refrain, before the song suddenly drops into a quasi-acoustic, quiet interlude:

I felt the Lord begin
To peel off all my skin.
And I felt the weight within,
Reveal the bigger mess
That you can’t fix.

—Manchester Orchestra, “Shake it Out”

The loud-quiet-loud structure of the song reminded me of something off of Brand New’s The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me, and not long after, the band released the title track of their then-upcoming album Simple Math for free. It was another quiet-loud-quiet introspective song, so I picked up a copy of Simple Math (and went back and bought Mean Everything to Nothing and I’m Like a Virgin Losing a Child as well).

The three albums (four if you count the unreleased Nobody Sings Anymore, which I do, since “Slow to Learn” and “Girl With Broken Wings” are some of my favorite songs) were enough to cement Manchester Orchestra as one of my favorite bands. Between Andy Hull’s angelic voice (and legendary beard; you have to mention the beard), drums that aren’t afraid to leave the hi-hat and snare, bass you can actually hear, guitars that get noisy but never reduce themselves to noise, and Chris Freeman playing like a dozen instruments at the same time, the band has everything I love about music.

The wait for new material after Simple Math was a long one. Now and then a new song came up during a live performance, and the band released a handful of singles, but after two years, Manchester Orchestra played a set featuring several new songs. For a few months nothing else happened release-wise, and during a show Andy Hull even joked that their new album was “apparently never coming out.”

Thankfully, their new album did eventually come out, incidentally enough, on April 1st.

cope

The first thing I noticed about the album was that I wasn’t fond of its artwork. While I’ve since come to accept it, at first it struck me as bland, almost lazy. That’s a superficial part of what makes an album, though, and didn’t deter me from pre-ordering the album, much less listening to it as soon as it arrived.

I was already familiar with the opening track, “Top Notch”, as the band released it on the internet months before the album’s release. The song sets the tone for the album to follow: Loud and angry. Where Simple Math gave way to orchestral instruments like strings and horns, “Top Notch”, like many of the songs on Cope, instead offers flavoring with sporadic guitar shreds. Lyrically, the song is classic Manchester Orchestra, blending storytelling and metaphor into a message that is cryptic but oddly relatable.

So the first kid says in his temporal tone,
“I don’t think there’s a way to resolve it.
We should wrap up these towels around our blistering palms,
And wait it out in the closet.”
His brother looks him up and down and prophesies how all of it should end,
He says, “We’re buried underneath the yard, and no one ever listens.
Or visits.”

—Manchester Orchestra, “Top Notch”

Before “Top Notch” has a chance to exit the stage, “Choose You” comes in with feedback leading to a fast-paced chorus of guitars, eventually giving way to one of my favorite opening lines on the record: “The invention of the ship was the invention of the shipwreck. I tried to find out who I was by jumping off the deck.” This song is more upbeat than “Top Notch”, but just as loud and angry, and many of the songs on Cope will follow its example.

The third track, “Girl Harbor”, quickly became one of my favorite Manchester Orchestra songs. One of the band’s signatures is their ability to be loud without sacrificing melody. I’ve touched on this already, but “Girl Harbor” is one of the best examples of this talent. Andy Hull’s brutal but somehow not unkind honesty shines in the song’s lyrics.

You always talk so loud,
And you never notice.
I don’t mind the sound, but you
Have re-arranged the pieces of your life
So many times, you’ve burned out the parts.

I don’t want to believe, but I want to believe you.
I don’t mean what I say, but I say what I mean to.

—Manchester Orchestra, “Girl Harbor”

Following this is “The Mansion”. One of Manchester Orchestra’s greatest influences is Built to Spill, and this song makes it easy to tell. I’m a sucker for songs with palm-muted verses that explode when they get to the chorus, and the trippy lead guitar and catchy chorus made this the first song from the album to get stuck in my head.

“The Ocean” is another great example of the angry-but-upbeat tone embedded in Cope, and the following track, “Every Stone”, is almost like the other side of the same coin. I don’t know what it is, but the two songs strike me as being related to each other. Where “The Ocean” is more flat and angry, “Every Stone” is calmer and more melodic, and both songs touch on the subject of letting things go.

That boat will not float,
It’s the last in its class, I’m the first one to know.
That bed is never made,
I’m the last of my kind, fucking tricked by my training.
I, I’ll give it to the ocean.

—Manchester Orchestra, “The Ocean”

 

You might just miss the mark
If you’re keeping everyone away
You didn’t mean to, you didn’t want to.
Well it might just leave a mark
If you don’t give anyone a say
You never want to, you never mean to.
Every stone I’ve thrown has gone away, it’s gone away,
It’s gone away.

—Manchester Orchestra, “Every Stone”

“All That I Really Wanted” is another showcase of that brutal honesty I mentioned before, while “Trees” almost feels like an epilogue to it. “Trees” has some cool moments, but I don’t love either song. I feel bad writing that, because Manchester Orchestra’s songs have a habit of creeping up on me and becoming favorites out of nowhere, so I can’t exactly set an opinion in stone, but for now I find the two underwhelming.

“Indentions” offers a welcome change of pace. It’s another fast favorite of mine. The bass and keyboards stand out on this one, the second verse has a really cool pre-echo effect on the vocals, and the last chorus is followed by a brief but very cool electric guitar riff. The chorus is simple but powerful: “I won’t leave indentions of me. I won’t leave intentionally.”

“See it Again” is probably the most unique track on the album. It starts off dark, with a faint vocal chorus to accompany heavy drums and a palm-muted guitar track, and the lyrics offer another storytelling session. This one isn’t so cryptic; the song deals with the narrator losing someone he cares about. The verses take us from the narrator’s front door before his loss, to uncertainty in a hospital waiting room, to deciding what does and doesn’t matter in life once he gets to the morgue.

Every Manchester Orchestra record contains at least one song that conjures a vivid depiction of some stage of death and grief. “See it Again” takes on this task for Cope, and it does a fantastic job.

The album closes with the title track, “Cope”. It’s another of those loud-quiet-loud songs I like. “Cope” is one of Manchester Orchestra’s shortest closers (“Colly Strings” and “The River” clock in at almost 6 minutes each, and “Leaky Breaks” ends up over 7) but it’s one of their strongest, in my opinion.

If I do echo, I hope you never see
There is no one there who’s waiting after me.
And I hope if there is one thing I let go,
It is the way that we cope.

—Manchester Orchestra, “Cope”

All of Manchester Orchestra’s albums have a unique sound, but Cope exists on an entirely separate plane. Sometimes, the album reminds me of the cover: Plain in black and white. There isn’t a lot of color here, but somehow, the band made it work, and with a few exceptions, each song becomes its own entity and stands out. Cope isn’t the album I asked for and it certainly isn’t the album I expected, but it’s one I welcome gladly.

All lyrics and the album artwork belong to Manchester Orchestra, not me.

nowListening: No Matter How Narrow by The Republic of Wolves

All lyrics and songs belong to The Republic of Wolves, not me.

When I first heard The Republic of Wolves, I hated them.

To be clear, I didn’t have anything against their sound. I guess a slice of history is in order: The Republic of Wolves made the scene when several of their demos appeared on YouTube disguised as Brand New demos. Brand New is my favorite band, and when I found out it wasn’t them, I was disappointed in how shady the whole thing was. When the band came out and claimed the demos, they said it was a friend of theirs who posted them, without the band’s knowledge. That didn’t alleviate my disappointment.

I think deep down I was mostly upset that I wasn’t hearing new music by my favorite band. (I probably knew this anyway; the demos sounded very similar to Brand New, but “similar” is as close as it got.)

Despite my mostly forced aversion to the band, every now and then, echoes of the song “Cardinals” played in my head: “I think I found a better way to live, and I think I found a better way to die.” The lyrics were so simple, but said so much. I found myself returning to the song to see what else it had to offer. I found more to like: “I’ve been fitting myself into that small space, that you set out for the screaming of the wind, ’cause that is all I’ve ever been.”

“Cardinals”, by The Republic of Wolves, uploaded to YouTube by a fan.

The immature compulsion I felt to avoid the band eventually broke down, and one day, I used the last of an iTunes gift card to buy the band’s EP His Old Branches. I would come to love the songs “Cardinals”, “For His Old Branches”, and “The Clouds”, and eventually I picked up the rest of the band’s releases.

The band’s first full-length album, Varuna, solidified them as one of my favorite bands. From the haunting, selling-your-soul-themed “Sea Smoke” to the energetic “Oarsman”, the seven-minute-long epic “Monologues” to the lethargic, melody-driven “Pitch and Resin” and “Grounded, I Am Traveling Light”, some of my favorite songs come from this album. I hadn’t felt particularly moved by music in a long time, and Varuna helped change that. It’s impact on me is probably clear; in my novel In the Lone and Level Sands, two characters meet up in the middle of the zombie apocalypse and travel across the country listening to music, and “Pitch and Resin” becomes their anthem. (I didn’t reprint any lyrics as that would infringe upon copyright, but it was and still is my hope that mentioning the song will inspire people to find it.)

The Republic of Wolves next released an EP called The Cartogropher, full of oceanic songs primarily sung by the band’s backing vocalist, which provided a fresh and interesting perspective on their music. Next came their second full-length, No Matter How Narrow, in which the band nails down a very new, more unique sound.

No Matter How Narrow by The Republic of Wolves

From the opening track “Frozen Feet”, it’s clear that No Matter How Narrow sounds radically different from the band’s previous material. The introspective, cleverly crafted lyrics remain, but the vocal melodies and the music that accompanies them are much brighter and lighthearted compared to the often dark, serious tones carried in the band’s past work.

There’s a cold that I must catch,
Living well in all that I’ve said
And I feel it coming on,
Unless it’s all in my head.

But you were up at two A.M.
Figuring out what it meant:
That all those sins were really sicknesses,
And nobody’s to blame.

—The Republic of Wolves, “Frozen Feet”

“Stray(s)” comes in quieter and darker, with verses reminiscent of Coldplay. The chorus is much louder and led by backing vocalist Gregg Andrew Dellarocca (something I wish happened more often on the album; in past releases, he handled lead vocals on at least one song, but not this time around). After this is “Spare Key”, a more upbeat song with lyrics hearkening back to “Cardinals”.

The official video for “Spare Key”, from the band’s YouTube channel.

“Greenville, MO” is perhaps the most akin to the band’s former sound, with distant guitars accompanying a prominent bass and slow, droning vocals. This isn’t to say this song would belong on one of the band’s other works; two bridges heartily shouted by vocalist Mason Maggio sound like nothing the band has produced before.

“Pioneers” introduces itself with a loud, catchy chorus, then calms down long enough to deliver the precisely placed, cleverly woven lyrics I first fell in love with this band for.

Enough with the coronations,
There’s no one left who isn’t king of something arbitrary
That’s why I’m looking for a crown to pick apart,
We’re just collecting flies in jars, a reconquista in our yard
A war I never had to start.

—The Republic of Wolves, “Pioneers”

After this is one of my favorite songs on the album and from this band, “Keep Clean”. The song contains the energy and enthusiasm of past tunes like “Oarsman” and “The Dead Men Stood Together”, but is possibly the most upbeat track they’ve ever recorded. The talented Will Noon of Straylight Run and fun. fills in on drums for this song.

So we’re all ordaining ministers
Because we can’t keep, no we can’t keep clean.
We’ve been deferring to a hypocrite,
With a kind voice and a loud idea
He divided up the races with a pencil and the Book of Genesis
And sorted us into companies and colonies all pitted up against each other
No matter how, no matter how common is our cause.

—The Republic of Wolves, “Keep Clean”

Following this is “Arithmetic on the Frontier”, an experimental track with a lot of effects, which sounds like something that could easily go wrong, but is perfectly executed. At just over two minutes long, the tune doesn’t wear out its welcome, and culminates in one of my favorite moments on the album, a loud, multi-layered chorus that reminds me of some of my favorite songs from The Cartographer. This leads into “Turning Lane”, another fast-paced track that contains some of my favorite lead guitar work on the album.

Next is the moody, quasi-acoustic “Vinedresser”. This is another of my favorites, with lyrics drenched in metaphor, stopping only once to deliver a moment of clear, undisguised sincerity:

But I was a victim like you,
My shoplifted grace in hand.
How could you know me so well,
When I couldn’t know myself?

—The Republic of Wolves, “Vinedresser”

“Orange Empire” is probably the heaviest song on the album. With lyrics like “Now I’m barely blood and flesh, just an anatomic sketch, coming to find this may be as solid as we get”, the song is contemplative, if not angry, which makes for a very solid penultimate track.

The album closes with “Through Empty Vessels”, a melodic and honest reflection on two people who have had a falling out. This one hits close to home for me; the subject isn’t new to the world of music, but the stance it takes is a little more original. When two people fight, it’s almost never one person’s fault. Sometimes things just don’t work. I’ve tried to capture this in song before, but I don’t think I’ll ever do as good a job as this song does.

And I was intertwined, for the first time, with my own lies
As we both crossed a devastating line
In the flood tide, it never mattered why
When we chose sides, we were both right.

—The Republic of Wolves, “Through Empty Vessels”

The title is possibly a reference to the band’s first EP, whose last song was called “Through Windows”. It wouldn’t be the only reference on No Matter How Narrow to the band’s previous work, and it’s obvious that The Republic of Wolves have come a long way in their musical journey. I can’t wait to see where they go next.