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Disc Reviews
David Brinn
I admit I don't get Modest Mouse. They have indie rock chops to spare, they've got a bona fide legend in the band in ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, but they sound like underachievers to me.
BRIGHT EYES Cassadaga (Helicon) Conor Oberst and his mates that make up Bright Eyes add more ammunition to bolster their standing in the indie pop world with the enchanting Cassadaga. Local audiences might be aware of Bright Eyes - essentially an every-changing musical vehicle for Oberst - through his the haunting "First Day of My Life," the 2005 song which played an integral role in the beginning of last year's acclaimed film The Bubble. Cursed with the albatross of a "new Dylan" moniker, Oberst has been writing and recording since he was 14. And even now at age 27, he still sounds like a delicate sparrow caught in mid-flight. Critics have slammed his precociousness, and while he might have once elicited a reaction "he's great for his age," today the reaction might as easily be "when's he going to grow out of this phase?" That's because Oberst is an acquired taste - sort of like the first time you first heard Neil Young's whine on the title song to the After the Gold Rush or just about any of his "folkie" material. It sounds weird until you grow to love it. The songs on Cassadaga, named for a Florida spiritualist center, are engaging and a little more concise than his earlier work, although there's a fair share of shaggy dog stories that recall, ahem, a certain someone named Dylan. Settling on permanent band mates - multi-instrumentalists Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott - adds a cohesiveness and ensemble sound to the music, especially when they mines the mellow alt-country field that Wilco pioneered. The unified groove on "conventional" tunes like "If the Breakman Turns My Way" and "Classic Cars" as well as the rolicking "Four Winds" and the spunky "Soul Singer in a Session Band" show Oberst enjoying the band leader mode. The production does, however become a bit to cluttered at time with pedal steel, electric violin and strings all vying for attention. But even if you initially listen to the songs for pure musical pleasure, of which there is much to offer, eventually the words come out and bite your nose and make you pay attention, thanks to Oberst's intense vocal delivery. Whether you understand them is another story, but they are certainly evocative. Cinematically visual verses like "Let the sideways rain in the crooked street remain" and "Leave the joyful air in that rubber ball," make the lyric sheet worth reading. If you're an old timer who pines for those old singer songwriter days of yore with the mantra "they don't make them like they used to," Bright Eyes might just surprise you. MODEST MOUSE We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank (NMC) I admit I don't get Modest Mouse. They have indie rock chops to spare, they've got a bona fide legend in the band in ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, but they sound like underachievers to me. Between their smart ass lyrics and album titles and singer Isaac Brock's affected Captain Beefheart-style man growl, they're way too quirky for mainstream success, then they can turn around whip off a power pop masterpiece. Marr's addition on We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank adds a certain depth and melodic warmth to the material, but the band's off kilter sound still pokes through on tracks like "Dashboard" and "Fly Trapped in a Jar." Too much of the material, however, sounds ordinary and forgettable, the death knoll to any self respecting rock & rollers. Prediction is that Modest Mouse will become the Spin Doctors of the '00s - look for them on the oldies circuit in another few years.
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