Cool For Cats

The Washington trio Modest Mouse can ignore any claims that they've sold out by signing to a major label. Their critically acclaimed 1997 indie album, The Lonesome Crowded West, on Up Records, revealed a group of twenty-something upstarts who knew how to seriously stretch their songs out of shape. On their big league debut, The Moon and Antarctica, that rather uncommercial propensity is still very much in evidence — thank goodness.

Singer/guitarist/lyricist Isaac Brock can make a three-minute song sound like a 10-minute one, merely by pasting bits of song together. On "Life Like Weeds," for instance, the flavor moves from funk to dirge in just two measures. Then there are the tracks that actually are closer to 10 minutes, such as "The Stars Are Projectors" (RealAudio excerpt), which takes it time going from threnody to dirge to Can to strings to ringing Sonic Youth-esque guitar overtones. This is ignoring the myriad country tinges that permeate the rest of the album, as well as the fact that "Tiny Cities Made of Ashes" (RealAudio excerpt) sounds as if it were lifted directly from the dancing days of post-punk rock.

If you're feeling sinister, it all may sound like the worst kind of peripatetic art rock. And Brock's lyrics certainly trudge through pretensions that do less than nothing to lighten the load. He worries about spiritual betrayal ("Your heart felt good/ It was drippin' pitch and made of wood," from "3rd Planet" [RealAudio excerpt]) and what happens to us when we die ("In the last second of life, they're gonna show you how they run this show" from "The Stars Are Projectors"). And hell isn't just other people; it's within Brock as well ("My hell comes from inside myself," from "Lives").

Why, then, should you listen to this cross between nervous Talking Head David Byrne and giddy Meat Puppet Curt Kirkwood? It has something to do with Isaac Brock being, well, modest. His musical forefathers in Pavement never disguised that they were smarty-pants, and he's probably just as wisecrackin' in person. But his goofy, hyperactive child voice, capable of earnest whine and arch speed-rap, peels the lid off his inability (refusal?) to come across as cool. In short, he's a dork, and as endearing a persona as indie rock has ever coughed up. And let's not ridicule his philosophical grappling, either. It matters not that you got over all that when you threw away the acne lotions; we access these songs to turn — and return — to the thrill, and the pain, of youthful discovery.