Good News for People Who Love Bad News
By Peter Hepburn | 26 January 2008
Exile in Guyville is a fucking terrific album. Liz Phair did want to be your blowjob queen and she would fuck you till your dick was blue. Pinkerton was an excellent album. Rivers had clearly fallen for the lesbian and the red-head had said to shred the cello. The Moon and Antarctica was, and remains, the best album Modest Mouse has ever made and one of the best "alt-rock" albums ever. Everything that held Isaac Brock together was falling apart; he had this thing he considered his only art of fucking people over (still one of the best lines ever to open an album with-right up there with Dave Berman’s “In 1984 I was hospitalized for approaching perfection”).
But if you sense a trend forming don’t worry too much. While Modest Mouse’s new record, Good News for People who Love Bad News, is certainly a desperate grab for mainstream attention, it doesn’t fall into the trap of a Liz Phair or Green Album. Brock is still able to deliver plenty of great songs and much of his trademark Frank Black-style yelping, it just happens to be encased within a strange production exterior which, if anything, makes the album even weirder, though not necessarily in the good way.
On Moon and Antarctica two great indie-rock producers, Brian Deck and Phil Ek (Built to Spill, Califone, Tortoise, Sea and Cake, The Shins, PGMG, etc. — all individually), were brought together and managed to create a subtle soundscape that matched Brock’s passive-aggressive vocals. On Good News, Dennis Herring (Jars of Clay, Counting Crows, Camper Van Beethoven) is brought in to produce and, as can be expected, the thing smacks of FM radio. Shifting string sections crowd in and a few of the tracks seem deliberately stylized to appeal to the commercial audiences (I’m guessing this was the justification for the insipid “Blame it on the Tetons”). It’s not that Herring does a bad job with the production, it’s just that his style doesn’t much naturally mesh with Modest Mouse, and the results can be distinctly off-putting.
The idea of good and bad news/times, images of floating, and themes of death and mortality permeate the album. Overall the record flows well, a cue taken again from the distinct movements of Moon and Antarctica. A series of intros, segues, and interludes keep the album moving along well and again there are certainly blocks of songs with interconnected themes. For the purposes of clarity (and because I really like using headings), I’ll follow Brock and company here and break the songs as they do.
The opening horn intro is a pleasant jolt, and then the quiet beginning to “World at Large” with lightly plucked guitar and looped vocal backing sets the song up well, as do the excellent opening lines of “ice age, heat wave/can’t complain/if the world’s at large/why should I remain?” Brock is just playing it cool; his world has already fallen apart and he could care less. “I know that starting over’s not what life’s about/but my thoughts were so loud I couldn’t hear my mouth,” he declares later in the track, and all this over a giant swelling string section and some sort of penny whistle that just makes you wish Herring hadn’t been let anywhere near Modest Mouse. “Float On” ups the intensity with its bouncing drum line and a declaration of purpose of sorts. No matter what comes his way Brock seems intent on getting by — it doesn’t seem to be ambivalence so much as wholehearted (and extremely uncharacteristic) optimism. The last song in the movement, “The Ocean Breathes Salty,” doesn’t do much to distinguish itself from the others, but there’s a decent breakdown early in the song.
The segue “Dig your Grave,” with its muttered “I hope you’re dead/you’re already dead” leads into one of the album’s best tracks, the typically-Brock schizophrenic “Bury Me With It.” He begins singing over a more standard-sounding Modest Mouse track (yeah, no string section here) but then hits the chorus and he’s reaming his lungs out to “PLEASE, BURY ME WITH IT!/I JUST DON’T NEED NONE OF THAT MAD MAX BULLSHIT.” The center section of the section builds on the idea put forth in the album’s title, and the song then bounces between this and the Brock yelps of the first part. “Dance Hall” is just pretty much awful, though for those who like nothing better than Isaac Brock screaming like a maniac, this will certainly be a favorite.
“Bukowski” is another standout, and on this one Herring’s production works well, building up the sinister, brooding atmosphere of the track. A cello matches the off-cadence drum skips and Brock’s multi-tracked vocals complement the effect nicely. Then about three minutes in everything but the cello and lightly brushed percussion drop out as Brock sings “evil home stereo/what good songs do you know,” and a truly malevolent sounding overdubbed vocal that just reeks of sin accompanies him. “The Devil’s Workday” lets Brock do his best Tom Waits impersonation and Herring gets a chance to use that horn section again.
“The View” is the main discrepancy in the thematic linkage. The song has a more upbeat, propulsive-rock feel to it, but seems generally uninspired. Luckily it is followed up by another of the best tracks on the album, the terrific “Satin in a Coffin.” A plucked banjo opens the track and then an evil military drum line propels a minor key string arrangement through the great chorus of “are you dead or are you sleeping/god, I sure hope you are dead.” The song degenerates into a repeated refrain multi-layered over a good organ line and then pulled together for the terrific “everybody’s talking about their short list/everybody’s talking about DEATH,” which drives back to the chorus.
The organ and cello “Interlude (Milo)” that leads into “Blame it on the Tetons,” complete with baby noises, gives a sense of relief and hope after the dark middle section. If perhaps someone had had the good sense to remove “Tetons,” or even replace it with the unused “I’ve Got it All (Most),” this transition would have been less painful. As is we’re left with a melodramatic, saccharine, poorly-written clunker of a track. “Everyone’s a building burning/with no one to put the fire out”? Really Isaac, some of us might actually expect more from you.
Somehow they once again manage to recover with the third great song on the album. “Black Cadillacs” opens innocently enough with a lightly sung, “and it’s true we named our children after towns/that we’d never been to/and it’s true that the clouds just hung around like black Cadillacs outside a funeral” only to be followed by the insistent screams of Brock, directed toward someone he has just buried. Then at 1:37, they throw down the best hook on the album as everything brocks out and Brock repeats the first line of the song over a slowly rising piano line that eventually builds back into his screams.
“One Chance” serves as a kind of rebuttal to “Float On” — here Brock is the responsible narrator, speaking of the one chance we get at life (“to get everything right”) and how “my friends, my habits, my family/they mean so much to me/I just don’t think that it’s right/I’ve seen so many ships sailing just to head back out again and go off sinking.” Here he is the antithesis of the carefree subject of the first section — surely the conceptual result of weathering the hell of the middle section. But that’s a bit profound/pretentious, so best not too think to hard about this. The album closes with the slightly hokey “The Good Times are Killing Me,” which is pretty typical of the record in its overproduction and light lyrical content. There’s simply no need for that many overdubs or that much orchestration; it is, after all, supposed to be a Modest Mouse album.
While certainly not as much of a sell-out record as it could have been, Good News will come as something of a disappointment to those of us who love Moon. Perhaps I’m just being close-minded. Maybe Isaac Brock actually felt that after the intermittently beautifully sparse and harshly rock arrangement of Moon and Antarctica what the band really needed to do as a musical evolution was to bring in the dreaded wall of sound. This would bode poorly for the band’s future, as the production on Good News is nothing if not a step in the wrong direction. Brock’s lyrics also don’t live up to the bar set by the last album; though there are some clever lines, the over-reliance on Brock’s screaming detracts from the overall effect of the record. It’s still ahead of most and it’s difficult to follow an album as good as Moon, but Modest Mouse still leave a lot to be desired with Good News.