Despite what its title might suggest, “Happy News for People Who Love Bad News” is Modest Mouse’s happiest album yet. But wait, there’s more! It’s also their most beautiful and — I think it’s fair to say — their best. And that’s no small feat: 1997’s “Lonesome Crowded West” is a ’90s indie-rock classic, and “The Moon and Antarctica,” their last record, is even more beloved. What makes “Good News” so good is a handful of songs, ranging from the sublimely mellow to the sublimely intense, that rival anything the band has done in its decade of kicking out the jams. “Float On,” which was also released as a single, might even be the band’s ticket to MTV/Clear Channel stardom. Hallelujah!
The breakthrough success of “Lonesome Crowded West” created a major-label bidding war for the band, and they soon signed to Epic Records (which is owned by Sony). Modest Mouse’s hyper-loyal fan-base didn’t like that too much, and words like “sellout” were tossed around with utter disregard for the band’s collective emotions. But Modest Mouse showed those insensitive bastards: like Nirvana, Elliott Smith, and the Flaming Lips (who, incidentally, play on and mix the album’s last song), they have miraculously managed to put their major-label budget to real use, developing and purifying their hallmark sound without jeopardizing any artistic integrity.
The record begins with two enormous horn hits, courtesy of The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, who have played with the Grateful Dead and Elvis Costello, among others. It is a far cry from the opening of the last record, the sad guitar riff of “Third Planet,” my (and everyone else’s) favorite Modest Mouse song. The first two songs of the album, “The World at Large” and “Float On,” fit so beautifully together, I think they should be one epic track. There is very little filler on this record (the one thing about their older stuff is that, by the end of the records, it’s hard not to start skipping songs). Other gems are “The Devil’s Work Day,” which sounds like it was ripped straight out of Tom Waits’ last record, and “The Good Times Are Killing Me,” the collaboration with the Flaming Lips.
If there is one thing about this album that stands out, it is its purity: the songs are full and rich, teeming with creativity, yet simply constructed — exactly the sort of thing that makes for great live music. Dennis Herring (Sparklehorse, Counting Crows) produced and co-mixed the album, and I’ll be damned if there’s room for improvement in its overall sound. It walks a thin line between over-polished pop and lo-fi grit, but it very rarely sounds either too clean or too dirty.
What is production, though, when you have a lead singer like Isaac Brock? He has, as my friend Lexi once said, the greatest goddamn voice in the world. Brock screams like Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye, moans like Tom Waits, and sings like Lou Reed. The distinctive production on his vocals, which often overdubs his low voice with a higher harmony, only makes it better. He can sound electrically charged (“Bury Me With It”) just as effortlessly as he sounds vulnerable (the standout “Blame It On The Tetons”), yet both are totally convincing.
He’s not a bad songwriter either, and his lyrics have historically been as consistently great as they’ve been morose. Everything he writes seems grounded in loneliness, doubt, death, and alcohol (I know I never enjoy any three without the fourth). Obviously, there has been much on Brock’s mind. Since 1999, he has been accused of date rape (he was never charged), got into a DUI accident, spent a week and a half in the big house for attempted murder, and — worse — licensed songs for TV commercials (hawking beer and minivans, no less).
Most pertinent to the new record, the band spent half a year writing and recording before longtime drummer Jeremiah Green left the band, after which they had to start entirely anew. Luckily for them (and us), they hired a new drummer, added a new guitar and keys player, and recorded “Good News” in under a month. And, while most of the album’s lyricism suggests that Brock is very much haunted by the last four years of his life, it is still somehow uplifting as a whole. “Bad news comes, don’t you worry even when it lands,” Brock sings in “Float On.” “Good news will work its way to all them plans.”
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