While Modest Mouse are perhaps best known for the infectious single ‘Float On’ and the 2004 breakthrough album from which it came, Good News For People Who Love Bad News, without their sophomore record The Lonesome Crowded West, released 15 years ago today, none of that would have ever been possible.
The Washington band’s second full-length album spoke directly to the disenfranchised American youth, featured enraged critiques on the failings of the corporatised world, inspired countless iconic bands, and paved the way for Modest Mouse to become alternative indie-rock pioneers.
15 years on, the album still seems as relevant, anger-filled and, abrasive as it did on its release on November 18th, 1997. The seminal record facilitated Modest Mouse finally breaking away from constant comparisons to Pavement, Built To Spill, and Pixies, establishing the band as a crucially important, unique addition to the 1990s indie-rock movement.
Primarily recorded by Isaac Brock (vocals/guitar), Jeremiah Green (drums) and Eric Judy (bass), the trio entered Moon Studios as virtual unknowns following the release of 1996 debut album This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About.
Produced by Scott Swayze, the band also called in Nick Kraft to assist in refining their diverse sounds, something that was highly effective and crucial to the sustained success of the release, transforming the band’s eclectic sounds into a workable whole.
The album centres on frontman Isaac Brock’s distinctive, emotive voice that delivers every line as if it were his last, a desperate man pouring his heart out in an increasingly deranged manner. It is an enraged critique of the failure of the American dream: the increased dystopian influence on the American West, the influence of religion, and the corporate stranglehold destroying Brock’s quiet suburban dreams.
Its artwork, displaying The Westin Seattle hotel’s twin towers as viewed through and framed by a claustrophobic porthole, subtly conveyed the album’s themes, which upon its release,spoke directly to the youth of 1990s America, but it seems just as befitting today, as corporate America continues it’s sprawl across the Mid-West.
The ambitious, sprawling, 74-minute epic proved to be the fledgling trio’s first breakthrough album, earning them a well-established cult following and eventually placing on many ‘best of the 90s’ lists, with Pitchfork placing The Lonesome Crowded West #29 on their list of Top 100 Albums Of The 1990s, while Spin ranked it #59 in The Best Albums from 1985 – 2005.
The record is an eclectic collection of powerful, allegorical songs featuring sharp, jarring guitars, diverse drumming and Brock’s defining vocals creating the cohesion that flows through the 15 songs. While the instrumentation may transform from song to song, Brock’s harsh, vulnerable vocals remain constant, producing a dark and brooding atmosphere.
The band create memorable, heartbreakingly realistic characters that drive home the anger that seems to fill their music.
‘Cowboy Dan’ is described as a truly free man, breaking away from the shackles of religion and the restraints of society, but by the song’s conclusion becomes overwhelmed by urbanisation, a theme that pervades the album, stating “I didn’t move to the city / The city moved to me.”
In a Pitchfork documentary about the record, Brock stated that “I had a lot of stuff going on in my mind that was just bothering me about strict moulds, and the paving of the West,” describing witnessing his hometown of Issaquah as being “mall-fucked…[with] pointless shit being built”.
It is this first-hand view of the gradual degradation of small communities in America’s West that forms the foundations for the record, creating a running basis for the outfit’s stinging attacks.
This belief in the destruction and hopelessness of increased modernisation is present across the record and becomes perhaps most apparent in ‘Doin’ The Cockroach’, the lyrical focal point of the release.
The track features the frontman at his angriest, spouting a cutting critique of modern, consumerist human nature, comparing it to that of cockroaches – merely repeating the same thing over and over. Cynically observing “This one’s a doctor / This one’s a lawyer / This one’s a cash thief/but they all boil down to the same thing.” Little more than pest-ridden insects.
It’s these nihilistic, pessimistic, yet somehow witty lyricisms that set the band apart from its contemporaries and predecessors, creating timeless lines that continue to critique the culture of modern times.
‘Trailer Trash’ displays the band’s ability to convey vulnerability and painful emotions, which are at times jarring and abrasive. Unlike the acerbic ‘Doin’ The Cockroach’, Brock spits his barbs not at others – but himself.
The lyrics are possibly autobiographical, revolving around Brock’s youth spent in a trailer, and lines like “Goddamn I hope I can pass high school / Taking heartache with hard work / Goddamn I am such a jerk / I can’t do anything” are truly heart wrenching in their brutally honesty.
Although appearing at times as impossibly pessimistic and cynical, Brock also displays his satirical, witty side, trading lines such as “Opinions were like kittens / I was giving them away” on ‘Out Of Gas’.
Album closer ‘Styrofoam Boots/It’s All Nice On Ice, Alright’, is a unbridled attack on organised religion, featuring barbs such as “Every time anyone gets on their knees to pray / Well it makes my telephone ring / And I’ll be damned / He said you were right / No one’s running this whole thing.”
The album also features subtly added elements that grant additional layers and texture to the piece of work, with Nicole Johnson contributing ethereal backing vocals that contrast perfectly with the frontman’s own rasping shouts on ‘Lounge (Closing Time)’ and ‘Long Distance Drunk’. Dan Gallucci, who would later join the band as a full member, also added extra guitar work to ‘Trailer Trash’ and ‘Bankrupt On Selling’.
Throughout the 15 years since its release, the impact The Lonesome Crowded West has had on the alternative, indie rock scene has become obvious, moulding the sounds of bands like Franz Ferdinand, and even iconic New York outfits like The Strokes and Interpol.
Modest Mouse’s influence on Wolf Parade’s Spencer Krug is the most obvious, with Isaac Brock helping to produce Krug’s debut album as Wolf Parade, Apologies To The Queen Mary’. The music features similar abrasive vocals and twitchy guitars that defined The Lonesome Crowded West’s brand of inky-hued, indie-hewn rock.
As Isaac Brock pledges on ‘Bankrupt On Selling’, ‘I’ll go to college and I’ll learn some big words / And I’ll talk real loud / Goddamn right I’ll be heard / You’ll remember all the guys that said all those big words he must’ve / Learned in college”.
15 years on, it has become glaringly obvious that Modest Mouse has most definitely been heard, while providing a thorough music education and musical influence that has schooled many more influential bands since; and will certainly be remembered for a long time to come.
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