Modest Mouse: The Lonesome Crowded West
Arguably Modest Mouse’s most successful album, The Lonesome Crowded West was an independent release that garnered national attention following the hit single “Polar Opposites”. It was perhaps the final throes of the 1990’s “Seattle Scene”. Sure, bands like Death Cab for Cutie, Fleet Foxes and to a lesser extent Tacocat have broken through since then, but in 1997, it seemed like Modest Mouse had the biggest hit of the fall/winter radio stations. Astonishingly, though this band ranked high on several best of decade lists, Lonesome Crowded West has apparently only sold about 60,000 copies.
When Lonesome Crowded West was released, it came with two slightly different track listings, one for CD and one for the vinyl release. With one exception, I’m going to be discussing the CD release, as that’s the one with which I am most familiar.
The album starts with the song “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine”, nearly seven minutes or fast/slow tempo rapid fire lyrics that are coated in disapproval of the falsities of consumerism. The title references these falsehoods by insinuating that the teeth are unnaturally clean, but throughout the songs are lines such as “buy some new friends” and “let’s all have another Orange Julius”. You can listen to this song and get the sense that singer Isaac Brock is sick of the world at large, or you can listen to it and understand that he’s trying to find his way in the jungle of the American way of life. Either way, the song totally works.
And already we are at the one track that is included on the vinyl release and not the cd release, edited for run time. That track is the exquisite “Baby Blue Sedan”, a track which i did not know about until I began seriously collecting vinyl. It’s like discovering a secret track in the pre-gap of your favorite album. There are great examples of contradictory lines packed into this song, such as “dancing like a wooden Indian” and eunuchs shouting “please stud us out as fast as you can”. Both portray a sense of futility, as does the pairing “and i’m lonesome when you’re around/and i miss you when you’re around”. The song is so simple, yet says so much. god how I love it.
Alright back to CD track listing. Track five, “Jesus Christ Was an Only Child” posits that, had Jesus come to the planet in the 1990s, there would have been more concern against the people making millions on the internet while contributing nothing to society. Later in the same verse, he states that “you should hide your kids while the dogs run wild”, referring to keeping the chaos out of view of your children and comparing people to a panicky animal.
Track seven, “Cowboy Dan” tells a fictitious story of an angry old cowboy who is so mad at the world that he wants to start a war. The chorus compares Cowboy Dan’s desires to that of somebody who, try as they might, can’t get their car to start. By the time we get to the bridge, he’s “standing in the tall grass/doing nothing”. Cowboy Dan comes to the realization that doing anything in the world is ultimately futile, as nature will outlast humans.
Finally, we get to the reason Modest Mouse went from an independent band on Seattle’s Up Records to signing to Epic Records for their next album. The reason was “Polar Opposites”, a song that was popular among so many different cliques as to become ubiquitous. Modest Mouse were heroes on the independent and alternative radio, but this song broke into the Top 40 stations, reaching the ears of football players and other “popular” people. Alt/Indie people heard in it the disdain aimed at people who spend their days tinkering rather than producing, “popular” people heard in it a validation of their stereotypical love of muscle cars, when the exact opposite is the point that was attempting to be portrayed.
Modest Mouse have kept their independent and “weird” band vibe, with Epic Records allowing them to create without the bigwigs messing up the process. As such, their 2000 album, The Moon & Antarctica saw their dense and personal lyrics reach a much wider audience. Their singles now reach national “alternative” stations, rather than just those of the Pacific Northwest.