Sharps & Flats

Modest Mouse builds a singles collection -- nothing out of something -- and all sorts of other contradictions.

Published January 31, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

When Modest Mouse, the latest of indie rock's last great hopes, decided last year to jump ship and sign with a major label, some fans wondered whether the band's experimental bent, unbridled creativity and penchant for six-minute-long songs might be compromised. Those questions will likely not be answered until the group releases its debut on Epic later this year. In the meantime, the band's former label, Up, taking full advantage of the Seattle group's surprisingly voluminous output (all three members are still in their early 20s) -- and now big-label profile -- has just released "Building Nothing Out of Something," a collection of 7-inch singles and three songs from the band's hard-to-find 1996 EP "Interstate 8."

While not nearly as satisfying -- or coherent -- as Modest Mouse's two full-length releases, "The Lonesome Crowded West" and "This Is a Long Drive for Someone With Nothing to Think About," this new collection does offer a fairly well-cobbled portrait of the band's first five years. It also provides glimmers of the types of songs ("Never Ending Math Equation," "All Night Diner") that Epic undoubtedly hopes will push the group beyond the edges of its indie-only audience.

Listening to Modest Mouse is a bit like looking at one of those warped mirrors in a boardwalk arcade. The sound is both familiar and perplexing, filled with pleasing hooks and dissonant, disorienting distortion. The most experimental of Modest Mouse songs often sound as if they were recorded in slow motion: Eric Judy's bass oozes, drummer Jeremiah Green sounds like he's pounding on mud and Isaac Brock sings through a glue-filled mouth. Weaving and looping, the songs swirl and repeat with a dizzying narcotic charm. It is the woozy intensity created by these musical ebbs and flows that has become the band's signature formula.

But hidden beneath Modest Mouse's spacey strains is an undeniable, yet somehow elusive bleakness. A sense that all is not right, but what is wrong may be more than any of us really wants to take on.

That sense is fortified by Brock's songwriting. His lyrics hinge on dualities and apparent contradictions. As on "Baby Blue Sedan," where he sings, "I'm lonesome when you're around/I'm never lonesome when I'm by myself/And I miss you when you're around." Other songs are equally as opaque. On "Working on Leaving the Living," Brock repeats "In heaven, everything's all right/In heaven, everything is fine," for the last five minutes of the six minute song, and even that seemingly simple line seems confused and uncertain.

"Building Nothing" is not a flawless collection and is not even pieced together exceptionally well. But for those not yet familiar with Modest Mouse, it offers enough variety to serve as a competent introduction. It's also a must for fans who haven't been able to get ahold of the songs previously released only as singles. And it should be enough to tide over those who just can't wait until the band's answers the big questions on its major label release this spring.

By Joe Heim

Joe Heim is a frequent contributor to Salon. He lives in Washington.


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