A March Out of the Pacific Northwest
Being boring in the shadow of the world famous Space Needle in Seattle Washington has perhaps had a small imprint on why I choose these two bands to kick off a series of album reviews throughout the coming months. However both these Indie rock giants have long since been the gems they once were hidden away just for us that lived in Seattle at the time to go see Neumo’s, The Graceland (r.i.p.) and lastly The Showbox. The real one not that imposture The Fenix Underground that now flaunts its fancy new name “The Showbox Sodo”.
Ok maybe my nostalgia has been bitter that the city I left has changed so much becoming like so many other cities, one or two venue towns. Both these band’s come from my hometown Seattle however unlike the years of my youth where they were our local bands they are now Indie Rock Tyrants that belong to everyone. Those two bands you may have guessed are Death Cab for Cutie and Modest Mouse. I will spare you all a history lesson on these two bands as if you never heard Death Cabs “Soul Meets Body” or Modest Mouse’s “Float on” you have defiantly been living under a boulder for the last decade and should be referencing the fashion and grooming sections of our great publication, don’t worry this review will be here once you get cleaned up.
I took these reviews in a direction that I normally would not as I want you the reader in this day and age of streaming everything off of any one of your numerous free music websites to feel compelled to get up and head to your local record store, or at the very least switch your tab over to iTunes and purchase the albums for yourself. I listened to all the singles they had released or played on a late night show themselves in promotion of their new records and formulated my opinions based on what they (the band) wanted me to know about the album previous to me buying it for myself. The way in my opinion music should be shopped. So buckle up and here we go on a double review of two northwest power houses.
There was an obvious transformation that took place in one of these two bands that was noticeable from the first track I listened to and stayed consistent throughout all of other tracks I listened to that day. That band was surprisingly Death Cab for Cutie. Their new Album Kintsugi (Which is a Japanese art of fixing broken pottery believing the repair is part of the history of the object not a blemish to hide) which is being released on March 31st through Atlantic records has taken an obvious turn for the darker, more synth pop side of things. The first single which was released on January 12th of this year shows this transition into a more 1980’s stylistic sound akin to that of New Order or Depeche Mode. This could be brought on by a few important to note changes that happened during the creation of this record. First and most importantly their long time lead guitarist as well as one of the founding members of the band Chris Walla left the band during the recording. Though he did reportedly finish recording his parts and writing the album with the band he left afterwards. All their releases previously have been produced by Walla which could potentially be a reason for the removal from the more classic sound established over the last decade or more. However since Ben’s successful side venture with The Postal Service we have been seeing a bit more electronics gradually bleeding forward from the depths it used to hide behind his and Chris’s guitars. This album at time’s feels like a full on 80’s synth pop tribute.
The other noticeable Change in general was the removal from the tinge of optimism felt on their previous album “Codes and Keys”. While that album was released on the heels of Ben’s relatively short marriage to New Girl co-star and M. Ward Roadie Zooey Deschanel and had a more positive lyrical feel this album is back to Pre marriage Ben in some Ways. Not quite as dark as his earlier writings there is certainly a sense that Ben’s world view has again changed and is bleeding through into his music.
The singles I listened to while reviewing this record were titled “Black sun” Which I found to be a bigger sound then we are used to out of Death Cab at times almost feeling like the often referenced wall of music we hear about at times. Heavy layers of dark synth’s and drums drive the song with obvious post production on the bass drum. “Ghost’s of Beverly Drive” Another track off the album I listened to was a more driven song than I am used to hearing from Death Cab. The Heavy Bass Line lead the song once again layered with what I can only describe as 80’s style synth work. The guitar work was layered with effects that reminded me heavily of another notable pacific North West band, Minus the Bear and were mainly just another layer to the wall of sound that made up the entire song. The song “No Room in the Frame” was the one song that was most unlike the others I had listened to. It started out very calmly with light synthesizers in the background of traditional Ben Gibbard Vocal lines. Eventually a very traditional Chris Walla lead line comes into the song and seems to hold your hand through the transitions. Eventually the drums pick back up again forcing the song to swell as the drum beat changes so does the mood of the song eventually dropping off completely leaving you with an interesting dual guitar riff that sounds technical while simply supplying the song the content it needs as it slowly drops off using a series of guitar and synth sounds I fondly remember being a staple of the North West indie rock of my youth.
Kintsugi all in all sounds like a promising record to me. As a musician I find myself critical of many albums that come out today. There will be those people who are going to go out with hopes that maybe, just maybe Death Cab has returned to the sound they had when songs like “Soul Meets Body” and “ I Will Follow You Into the Dark”, and even others that will hope the simplicity of “Transatlanticism” would return. However as with all bands their progression moves forward not backwards and those days are gone. What you will find here though is a solid album, heavily influenced by 80’s synth pop and the final workings an almost 20 year relationship between the band and longtime song writer Chris Walla. In the end I give Kintsugi a 7 out of 10. It has an interesting sound and Ben is writing better than previous albums. That being said anyone looking for a recreation of “Plans” will be disappointed.
Growing up I was in a band in the Greater Seattle area called “Amphora”. We were a two piece that had no real idea what it was. I a classically trained blues guitarist was going the way of The White Stripes and then the very unknown Black Keys. My drummer on the other hand had his own ideas and that idea was we were going to be Modest Mouse. Just the two of us were going to make music that technical come out of my Gibson SG i got used from some 2nd hand music shop and he a drum set I had picked up from a kid who was once my neighborhood bully for 100 dollars. That was it our destiny was to be in the band by the time “The Moon and Antarctica” came out. Sadly and much to our surprise that did not happen. Though i thought we had a pretty awesome chance at it. Shortly after that Modest Mouse put out “Good News for People Who Love Bad News” came out and our dreams were dashed. They were a huge main stream success and my friend’s mom in Texas could be heard singing “Float On” from behind the steering wheel of her lifted Ford F-5000000 on the way to his little brothers baseball practice. After the commercial success from that album there was a lot of rumblings around the music industry and the Seattle music scene about some move to Portland and numerous other things we considered poor judgement calls from our point of view then out of nowhere one of their many lineup changes happened, except this one brought in Johnny Marr. Suddenly everything seemed right again and they released “We Were Dead before the Ship Even Sank”. After a two year supporting tour for that record as quickly as he came Marr left the band and after being replaced they put out “No One’s First and You’re Next” which was a collection of unreleased tracks for the recording of their last two albums.
For the years after that release and subsequent tour they kept a very low profile, nearly ceasing to exist. Playing only a handful of large festival shows and coming out with now new music. While there was rumblings of some sort of album in the works it never surfaced. That is until now. After a six year wait Modest Mouse finally has a new album to bestow upon the world. “Strangers to Ourselves” was released earlier this month on March 17th 2015 on Epic Records. Originally set to be released on the 3rd of March it was pushed back two weeks for unknown reasons, however I’m just happy it’s here and so should you be. The first single “Lampshades on Fire” is led by its bass line. It’s bouncy and almost circus like beat is an awesome way to show a bit of new flare while still standing by Isaac Brock’s traditional chaotic vocal stylings and simple yet twangy guitar lines. Occasionally this song lacks any real tangible structure but not in bad way. In a way that only Brock and his merry band of misfits could make dive head first back into a loud combustion of music uniquely “Modest Mouse”.
“Coyotes” the second single I heard on the record is defiantly my favorite so far. It starts slow with an acoustic guitar into accompanied by what if my ears serve me correctly was the deep pounding of Timpani’s in the background. Then it starts to build gradually and right when you think it’s going to take off into a big loud wall of Modest Mouse it drops back off again to the acoustic guitar and timpani again. Brock’s Lyrics still hold a tie to the Northwest while the video shows an actual coyote riding The Max around Portland eventually ending up in Pioneer Square (again the one in Portland, not Seattle) The song is a ride as well Building up one last time and coming to a climax you expected before letting you go gently with just a final few smooth bars of sound.
I had read the reviews of this album before I listened to it. I was scared. It had been so long. Was my old friend back but not doing so well? Had he moved away came back a changed man only to gloat in our faces about his recent successes and make us feel like life had passed us by? None of these were true. This album was a pleasant and very welcome surprise. Nothing makes me happier than when some good new tunes come out. This has been a strong year for quite a few different genres of music and their new release’s, especially with hip hop. But this Modest Mouse album was really much better than I had originally thought it would be. Isaac Brock is still (maybe) in control and apparently has enough material for a 2nd album to follow this one up very quickly. Quite frankly I can’t wait to hear it. This album gets an 8.5 out of 10 from me. That’s with no consideration that they are my hometown boys. It’s one you should add to your collection this spring and one you will listen to long after the spring is over.
Other notable recent releases: Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Asunder, Sweet And Other Distress; Ringo Starr, Postcards From Paradise; Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell; Matt & Kim, New Glow; Alabama Shakes, Sound & Color; Built To Spill, Untethered Moon.
– by T.J.Libra