Captain of the 'Ship'

March 11, 2007


Captain Ahab is a role Isaac Brock was born to play, and he's rarely been better at it than on "We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank," the eagerly anticipated fifth album from his band, Modest Mouse. (The disc is scheduled for release by Epic Records on March 20, but it's already widely available on the Net.)

As fans well know, the guitarist, vocalist and songwriter loves to project the persona of a man obsessed -- if not with a great white whale, than with some unnamed goal nearly as unobtainable and mythic -- and watery imagery often plays a role in his songs: The two biggest hits from "Good News for People Who Love Bad News," the group's 2004 breakthrough, were titled "Float On" and "Ocean Breathes Salty."

In the elaborate and witty video for the new single "Dashboard," Brock has a blast portraying a grizzled and possibly mad old salt who lost a limb to a monstrous sea creature. (His missing hand is replaced with a microphone instead of a hook.) But the quality of the artist's music that would most likely resonate with Herman Melville is a sense of dread and foreboding straight out of the Puritans' reading of the Old Testament: We are all wicked, evil sinners who must repent, lest the Good Lord strike us down.

According to Chicago music journalist Alan Goldsher, author of the recent biography Modest Mouse: A Pretty Good Read (Thomas Dunne Books, $13.95), this dark vibe has its roots in Brock's upbringing in a Christian fundamentalist group with ties to the infamous Branch Davidians. "Little is known about the sect, other than that their doctrine is apparently one predicated on fear of hell and damnation," the author writes, adding, "Much of Isaac's songwriting is laden with religious imagery -- he's especially fixated on the devil."

On the other hand, Goldsher was never granted access to Brock, who makes no secret of his disdain for interviews, and the writer emphasizes that the musician is a master of spinning his own legend -- often overstating the poverty of his upbringing in a trailer home in Isaaquah, Wash., for example. (There was a trailer, but apparently it was pretty swank.)

Brock's authenticity was subject to debate long before "Float On" appeared on a "Kidz Bop" compilation, ever since he licensed a track from "The Moon and Antarctica," the 2000 album he recorded in Chicago with producer Brian Deck, to a commercial for a minivan. But that inside-indie-rock argument isn't worth distracting from a second's pleasure with "We Were Dead ...," an undeniable set of delightfully skewed modern pop.

Much has been made of the personnel here: Original drummer Jeremiah Green returns (he left in 2003, reportedly because of a mental breakdown); James Mercer adds backing vocals (in his role as unofficial A&R man, Brock brought the Shins to Sub Pop Records) and -- in the biggest news of all -- on-again, off-again guitarist Dann Gallucci has been replaced by none other than Johnny Marr, most famously of the Smiths.

Marr reportedly was the first name on Brock's list of "dream guitarists"; to his surprise, the Englishman cautiously agreed to try his hand co-writing and recording a few songs, and that experience went so well that he's become a full-fledged touring band member. Some pundits are even calling the group "Marrdest Mouse." Yet the most obvious borrowed riff is from the Rolling Stones, and while there's plenty of interesting guitar work, little of it is linked to the indelible sound established in 1984 on the Smiths' debut. (Of course, many of that band's fans would contend that Marr has never really sounded like Marr without Morrissey, as evidenced by Electronic or the Healers.)

In any event, the bottom line is that Modest Mouse is still Brock's show, and he excels at creating ominous moods: Witness the understated squeezebox that launches the album and the opening track "March Into the Sea," the deceptively lulling groove of "Fire It Up" and the "ashes to ashes" chorus of "Parting of the Sensory" ("Some day you will die and / Somehow something's going to steal your carbon"). Even better, though, is how those dark moments set up the unexpected and unconventional hooks, such as the wordless sing-alongs of "Florida" and "Steam Engenius," the gorgeous violin of "Missed the Boat" and the regale trumpet of "Dashboard."

Those last two songs offer plenty of hints that Brock ultimately subscribes to a decidedly more optimistic philosophy than the apocalyptic one of his religious youth or many of his lyrics. Singing about a wrecked auto in "Dashboard," he cheerfully notes that "The dashboard melted, but we still have the radio," while the key line in "Missed the Boat" is "I laughed all the way to hell." It isn't hard to imagine Ahab penning that lyric, or at least banging his wooden leg in time as he sings along.



Modest Mouse, "We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank" (Epic)
Critic's rating: 3 and a half stars