Modest Mouse is an indie trio from Washington State fronted by singer/guitarist Isaac Brock and anchored by the the rhythms of bassist Eric Judy and drummer Jeremiah Green. In case you haven't already heard about them (the buzz from the critics has been deafening since their 1996 debut, "This Is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About"), they are often compared favorably to alt-rock legends the Pixies and lo-fi auteurs like Pavement and Built to Spill. But Modest Mouse are really like no other band before or sincethe sense of isolation-in-the-midst-of-a-crowd that permeates their music is at once startlingly new and eerily familiar. They are prolific without watering down their material, with three full-length CDs and a handful of EPs to their credit in the last few years. Even "Building Nothing Out of Something", a CD that compiles several of their out-of-print EPs and singles, is astonishingly well-formedmost bands dream of releasing a single album as cohesive as this.
"The Moon and Antarctica", their first major-label release, is perhaps their most accomplished work to date. New listeners may be lured in by the near-pop melodies present in "3rd Planet", "Gravity Rides Everything", and "Paper Thin Walls", but don't be fooledthese songs are still as bleak in their sentiments as previous Mouse manifestos, with lyrics like "Everything that keeps me together is falling apart" (3rd Planet), "As fruit drops/flesh it sags/Everything will fall/Fall right into place" (Gravity Rides Everything), and "Everyone wants two of them/And half of everyone else who's around" (Paper Thin Walls).
This isn't to say that this music is no fun to listen to; even on the most gloomy songs, such as "The Cold Part" (whose lyrics consist primarily of variations on the phrase "So long to this cold cold part of the world") and "Perfect Disguise", the interplay between the multiple guitar lines and the bass are a mesmerizing spell that only bands like The Church and Television were previously capable of casting. Even the lyrics, which are for the most part meditations on death, disconnection, and the utter absence of love, leave you in awe of their complex simplicity, zen haiku fragments spiked with existential shards of rage and frustration.
Nevertheless, there is still an undercurrent of hope in some of the lyrics that has only briefly been glimpsed in past Modest Mouse outings. It's not a obvious as the hope that flowed through Radiohead's melancholy masterwork "OK Computer", but from Modest Mouse, it's practically an expression of joy. "In this life like weeds/You're a rock to me/You're the dirt I breathe" sings Brock on "Life Like Weeds", in which he thanks others (friends? family?) for supporting him, and even regrets not saying it more often ("I could have told you all that I loved you"). In the middle of "Lives", one of the album's bleaker tunes (featuring lyrics like "No one really knows the ones they love/If you knew everything they thought I bet you'd wish that they'd just shut up"), Brock slips in an acoustic song fragment whose lyrics and music undercut the gloom of the rest of the song:
It's hard to remember we're alive for the first time
It's hard to remember we're alive for the last time
It's hard to remember to live before you die
It's hard to remember that our lives are such a short time
It's hard to remember when it takes such a long time
It's hard to remember
The Moon and Antarctica would be appropriate settings for listening to this albumdesolate, awe-inspiring, and ultimately unknowable. Like any great work of art, it's the mystery that will keep you listening to this record for years; you can't quantify it exactly, but you know down to your bones that it's beautiful and sad and true.