Top Ten Songs by Modest Mouse

I don’t know why I chose this band. I could more easily write the “top ten songs per each album by Modest Mouse”, even the album with eight songs, I would just make up two songs, and give them obscure titles. But the challenge lies therein. Also, I guess I need to publish more often, so this seemed like a no-brainer when I read the assignment. Ten songs, Modest Mouse, sure. I write this with the disclaimer that these are ten songs that I really love, me the writer, that is. I have been to too many websites with rabid fans and I know that this list will make someone angry, or hurt, and that is way beyond my “custom” concern. If this little list of my personal favorites can generate a discussion, super.

An ex-boyfriend turned me onto this band, because he was listening to a lot of Modest Mouse after we broke up. I soon realized his attraction for the music. It is somewhat dark, but not depressing, just realistic. Modest Mouse’s lyricist and vocalist, Isaac Brock, is a keen observer of the world around him, but I suspect he tends to view the world through some rather dark, possibly cracked lenses. Misery loves company, and thus the immediate attraction for the band for both myself, as well as my ex.

Modest Mouse came into my life at the right point. The Pixies were dead, and I didn’t have anyone to fulfill my need for clever lyrics, coupled with inventive and experimental rock. The musical landscape looked bleak, and then a carnival road into town. Well, more of a freakshow, really, and who doesn’t love a freakshow?

Drumroll, please.

1. Here It Comes
This is off a small album (only eight songs) with so much good stuff it is hard to pick just one or two from it, but this is the best of the best. This song starts with this reversal of the sound, and goes into a light snare and picked guitar, seems very sweet. Maybe it’ll be a love song, but no, it is full of a bitter disappointment, as most of Brock’s songs seem to convey. The lyrics are more than clever, they are uber-clever. But I can say that about all of MM’s songs, however, this song has a intuitive use of phrases and phrasing. It is short, but terseness is not a demerit in my eyes. Lines like “probably tell me everything you think, here it comes” and “make a point to make no sense” and “talk about the future in past tense” and “walking around with shit on my shoes” only belie the singer’s rather indifferent attitude towards the situation. And yet not completely indifferent, as you detect a sense of sorrow and helplessness.

2. Tiny Cities Made of Ashes
This song reminds me of a short story by a french guy named DeLeuze, The Southern Throughway. Not sure entirely why, but I just think they have a simliar theme. Both deal with the breakdown of society, and that seems to be a common theme in Brock’s lyrics. Oh, yeah, and this song just rocks in general. A strong driving bass moves this song along the road on the way towards the cities in question. Vocals are a weird layering of a soft falsetto and a overexaggerated bass, almost spoken rather than sang. “I just got a message that hell has frozen over, I got a phone call from the lord saying, hey boy, get a sweater” is only one clever line in this chaotic song. I sense that Brock is not a big fan of society, and it’s pretty obvious as the chorus is “Does anybody know a way that a body could get away.” Oh, yeah, and he screams it.

3. Bury Me With It
Ok, I admit this song sounds a lot like the Pixies to me, and that is one of the reasons I love it. It is a song that once again brings up the notion of death, and that seems to be another common theme for Brock. He mentions his or someone else’s “wake” in numerous songs. Maybe he comes from an Irish family? The guitar work is loud in this song, and I can always dig some loud guitar, it’s rough, but then half-way through, the lyrics soften up and it seems pretty for a moment. Again the lyrics are great, “the point was fast, but it was too blunt to miss, life ended in a paycheck, we said we worked harder than this.” I dare say that this man is a poet, in the best sense. The turns of phrase and how he breaks them down in the music is masterful.

4. 3rd Planet
Another theme: The origins of life and the universe. Brock doesn’t seem to be a religious man, but he has definitely had some background in it, as he is working some of his agnosticism out in many of his songs. Starts with a simple guitar, as Brock starts to vent his dissatisfaction, and then the guitar gets louder, the vocals layer, and “that’s how the world began, and that how the world will end.” The wonderful thing about this song, is that it has so many words. It is kind of like a rap song, but sung, and more lyrical, but Brock is a writer, with a lot to say, but luckily he doesn’t give it to us by the spoonful. No, he throws it at the listener, forcing you to keep up with him.

5. All Night Diner
I sometimes have the feeling that Brock and I grew up in much the same way, bored. Bored to the point of self-destructiveness, as this song tells the tale of hanging out in those 24 hour joints that contain a bevy of interesting characters, a world in which drug-use is a given. The guitar work is excellent in this song, with a couple of different riffs and effects going on, creating a very dense sound. The lyrics (again the lyrics are my one true love) contain such wonderfully atmospheric gems like “looking at the thin air, breathing up the oxygen” and “guy comes up, looking pretty eight-ball”. If Brock would write a book, I would read it, if only for his phrases. His details and his descriptions remind me of a hard-boiled detective novel from the 40’s.

6. Night on the Sun
This is a song with two movements. Slow and lugubrious in the beginning, airy but not light, more like a foggy day next to the sea, the pulse picks up for lyrics such as “turn off the light ‘cos it’s night on the sun” and “freeze your blood and stab it into me”, but slows down again, almost contemplating what the song should do next. It then changes into an instrumnetal piece, growing into a crescendo of guitar and drums, then with the lyrics coming at you more forcefully. “Well, there’s one thing to know about this town, not a person doesn’t want me underground” leads to a softer melodic layer of voices, saying “that’s alright.” This song makes you lose yourself in it’s layers and then you find yourself shipwreaked on that same desolate beach, but then the music comes back, and you know where you are again. Do you feel better, probably not, but you feel something, and that in itself is rare in modern music.

7. Satin in a Coffin
Another song that simply rocks out. A bluegrassy guitar, maybe a banjo, gives way to a bass line that sounds oppressive. A snare drum creates a marching beat, and then lyrics are angry and aggressive. This is just a great rock song, even though there is a banjo, strings, and a snare drum. Modest Mouse has always been inventive with their music, but this album features not only better technology (the by-product of a bigger record company and more money) but also a growing maturity and need for pushing the envelope. Maybe this isn’t top ten material, but it is a good example of a new twist on rock for which Modest Mouse should be commended.

8. Heart Cooks Brain
Atmospheric and strange, what is not to like on this song? “My brain is the burger, and my heart is the charcoal” and then “my brain’s the weak heart, and my heart is the long stairs” – I mean, who writes that? This song usually sticks around in my head for hours, and days afterward. Catchy guitar riff, and various strange noises combine to create an odd song that I can’t help but sing along with, even when walking in downtown Chicago with my ipod on. And yes, I do get strange looks.

9. Out of Gas
Another song from The Lonesome Crowded West which is just a great album in general. Like I mentioned before, I could easily have chosen top ten songs from just this album. Out of Gas is one of my favorites for this line alone, “I had a drink the other day, opinions were like kittens, I was giving them away.” Brock is not only smart, and well-read (the band’s name is from a Virginia Woolf short story), but he is also just too clever. It is so rare to find that. I mean, sure the Shins reference Sir Thomas More, but that just seems to be a shout out to their liberal arts education, whereas Brock seems more like the old man that gives Bill Murray’s character in The Razor’s Edge the beat up copy of the Upanishads. Maybe not formally educated, but learning from the experience and the many pitfalls that this life has in store for us.

10. Tundra/Desert
This one is my little secret favorite song. I love the absolute chaos and freneticism in this song. And I had to represent This is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About. Though in all honesty, there are way too many good songs on this album to pick this one song as the best of the album. I just like it. It rocks out, and sometimes that in and of itself should be good enough to get on a top ten list.

Yes, yes, I know, I have left out so many songs, but the perameters of this article was the top ten, so I have offered my top ten. I have been on, and I can tell you that there are some hardcore Modest Mouse interpreters out there, and by no means, do I wish that anyone get all in a tizzy over my particular choices. This could have been the top one hundred, but who has that kind of attention span. However, I would like to draw attention to the fact that so many people have so many different readings of Modest Mouse songs, and that each reading is valid. That is really what art is about, without trying to sound too much like an ivy tower snob. The true brillance of Modest Mouse and in particular, Brock as a lyricist, is that he can create pictures and feelings, characters and situations with his words, but only to give you a jumping off point for your own interpretation of his songs. Oh, yeah, and my favorite thing absolutely is that they don’t throw that crappy ballad on their albums because everybody else does it. I hate ballads.

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