Live Last Night: Modest Mouse

"Float On," the winsome single that dragged long-time cult act Modest Mouse into the mainstream in 2004, was a danceable confection with a chorus that sticks in your brain like a computer virus. It was, in other words, an outlier in the catalogue of a band better known for jagged rhythmic shifts and psycho-preacher vocals than for hooks.

So perhaps it's appropriate that the tune was omitted from the group's chaotic, wildly uneven 9:30 club set in the wee hours of Saturday morning. Though the elbow-to-elbow gig felt like the sold-out-iest 9:30 show in recent memory, this one was for the diehards if it was for anybody.

(Read the rest of the review after the jump.)

Also left out: "Fire It Up" -- the song, but far worse, the sentiment. If you don't take the stage until after midnight, you'd better hit it a lot harder than this.

"We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank," Modest Mouse's most recent full-length album, continued to meld the schizo-folk and schizo-funk that seem to be their natural modes of expression to more accessible pop structures. You can hear some Talking Heads or Pixies on those tracks, but the synthesis still feels fresh. (Maybe the presence of former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr and Shins vocalist James Mercer on the album had something to do with it.)

But live, the six-piece, two-drummer group remains bloated with jam-band ennui, even if most of their songs aren't particularly long. Absent any sense of urgency or rising tension, the gig was a textbook example of why most bands shouldn't make up a new setlist every night. The practice allows for spontaneity and surprise in the selection of material, but it also makes it tough to build up a head of steam.

There was more awry than just the pacing: Frontman Isaac Brock has shown he can get around his vocal limitations in the studio; but onstage, he seems afflicted by some kind of singing Tourette's syndrome, delivering every number, regardless of tempo, volume, or emotional intent, in the same strangled staccato bark. (You wonder if he sings "Happy Birthday" that way.)

As a stage presence, he's inert, scarcely acknowledging the audience all night. Well, he did ask the front-row crush if they needed water, or therapy, early on, but that was it for the Brock charm offensive.

Only about half the set was culled from the group's breakout (2004's "Good News for People Who Love Band News") and post-breakout ("We Were Dead") albums, leaving room for deep cuts like "Custom Concern" in the 100-minute show.

A trio of the stronger numbers -- "King Rat," "The Whale Song" and "Satellite Skin" -- were "We Were Dead"-era outtakes, some of them slated for release on an EP this year. Actually, "Satellite Skin" was the most compelling performance of the night, which sums up the whole affair handily: The best song you heard is one you can't currently buy.

Admission to this cult is not automatic. But after a show like this, why would you want to join?


By J. Freedom du Lac |  March 15, 2009; 4:07 PM ET Live Last Night
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Were you actually at this show?

Posted by: agrntluf | March 17, 2009 3:58 PM

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