Modest Mouse brings diehards back to beginning
It’s hard to argue that a band still qualifies as “indie’’ when it’s not only on a major label (a disqualifier by definition), but also has a No. 1 album under its belt. But at the House of Blues on Sunday (the first of two sold-out dates), Modest Mouse demonstrated in a number of ways that it had little interest in operating according to the precepts of the mainstream just because it happens to be a part of it.
For one thing, there was the tour itself, apparently undertaken simply because Modest Mouse felt like it, rather than in service of a record to promote. The band’s most recent release was an odds-and-sods EP that came out a year ago, while its last full-length album was 2007’s “We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank.’’
The setlist and song order also failed to play by the standard rules. The band opened with the expansive “Missed the Boat’’ and tackled the clipped, dancing-jackboot “Float On’’ five songs later, exhausting the two biggest hits it would play all evening before hitting the halfway mark. Nearly half the material predated Modest Mouse’s popular breakthrough, covering non-album tracks and indie-label pressings and reaching back almost 15 years to a first album that’s probably only been heard by diehard fans.
But the diehard fans seemed to be in attendance, immediately recognizing and cheering the debut’s “Dramamine’’ from the seasick up-and-down riff that opened it. With a switch to guitar chords that felt like a bandage being yanked off, the song became sharper, louder, and more intense, then airier as the tension was let out, then intense once again.
For all of the jagged guitar fueling it, much of the song’s visceral impact came from the two-drum-kit approach taken by Jeremiah Green and Joe Plummer. It was one of the few times that the two went directly head-to-head. Instead of doubling Green’s playing, Plummer usually served as a dedicated percussionist, augmenting the rhythmic depth by adding two extra arms.
That became key on songs such as the post-punk disco of “We’ve Got Everything’’ and the locked-in “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes,’’ rhythmic workouts that took advantage of Eric Judy’s nervous, scraping bass and frontman Isaac Brock’s ability to spit the lyrics until he was twitching. A lot of the songs also featured Brock’s two primary guitar moves: a hollow, muted plink and a wobbly bend that made it sound like his instrument was strung with rubbery wires. He used both in “Float On’’ and “Here It Comes,’’ which blossomed from a thumping roll into an uptempo march.
The slower, airier, gentler “Blame It on the Tetons’’ and the rustic pop shuffle of “Autumn Beds’’ offered changes of pace. Mostly, though, Modest Mouse stuck with what could be viewed as a balance between its pre- and post-mainstream careers: an agitation marked, more than anything, by high spirits.
Opening act Morning Teleportation was a band with so many musical ideas that its songs sounded like a music fan with ADD showing off his record collection. Songs routinely switched gears entirely two or three times before they reached their end, covering angular, horn-driven post-punk, some Flaming Lips space exploration, and the clean electric-guitar picking of Vampire Weekend.
Marc Hirsh can be reached at email@example.com.