The latest indie band to be sucked into MTV’s buzzworthy bin has been a constant staple in my record collection for quite some time. Despite popular opinion, Modest Mouse’s career did not begin with “Float On;” in fact, the video for that song is the first video the band has ever made. Nowadays you can turn on your local radio station and hear “Float On” played every five minutes, tune in to MTV and see their video, and then watch them play on Letterman. Modest Mouse is in the middle of their fifteen minutes of mainstream fame, the question one has to ask is whether or not their music will still maintain the same unbridled insanity and originality that drew most of their longtime fans to them in the first place, or if this album will be the soundtrack to the Modest Mouse sellout story.
A minute after receiving Good News For People Who Bad News, I popped it into my CD player and was overjoyed to hear something I never thought I’d hear on a rock record; horns, lots and lots of horns. The flourish of horns that begin this release is brought to you by The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, a modern day jazz band that continues to amaze with each of their releases. The simple use of The Dirty Dozen Brass Band presents Modest Mouse as not just another indie band breaking into the mainstream, but as an indie band maintaining their roots while thrusting themselves forward into the unknown of popular success. The second track on the disc is less in your face as the “Horn Intro” was; it’s more laid back, showcasing Brock’s subdued yet otherwise manic vocals. “The World At Large” portrays a scene of starting over. The lyrics tell of a person’s journey to escape the world that they’ve come to know and to travel into something new despite thoughts that “…starting over is not what life’s about.” Bouncy backing vocals combined with the simplistic yet charming music makes this track into a seemingly pleasant and slow beginning to an album that is filled with thunderous vocals and pounding, pulsating music.
“The Devil’s Workday,” “Satin In A Coffin,” and “The Good Times Are Killing Me” seem to stick out as the release’s most intriguing songs. “The Devil’s Workday” showcases Brock and his banjo accompanied by the horns of The Dirty Dozen Brass Band. The song starts out with what began the disc, “The Horn Intro,” then with a low chuckle from Brock the banjo kicks in and the squealing horns add a sense of evil to this wicked track. Brock’s voice is this rage-filled growl that really pushes this song into uncharted terrain. Another song that thrives with Brock’s intricate banjo playing is “Satin In A Coffin.” Starting off with a vibrant banjo hook and Tom “Hackensaw Boys” Pelosi’s dauntingly morose bass line, the song immediately presents the listener with a tune filled with dark lyrics. “Are you dead or are you sleeping? God I sure hope you are dead” sings Brock with a forceful tremble of a voice which gives this track even more of a dour appeal. The constant organ melody of Eric Judy, the skilled guitar work of Dann Gallucci, and the pounding drums of Benjamin Weikel only add to this magnificently intense track. “The Good Times Are Killing Me” has a light breezy tone flowing through it. The lyrics however tell a tale of vices and how these so called “good times are killing me.”
Compared to their other albums, Good News For People Who Love Bad News has an abundance of banjo work which often leads me to describe this album to others as ‘banjo-rific.’ Their latest effort continues the Modest Mouse tradition of being entirely original and true to their musical roots. Surprisingly enough, this may be the album that gives Modest Mouse the boost to stay rooted in mainstream culture despite my own reservations.
Berwanger – Watching a Garden Die
Josh Berwanger continues to evolve as a songwriter
At the height of Vagrant Records’ early success in the late 90s, the label was buoyed by the incredible draw of their two biggest names- The Get Up Kids and Saves the Day. And while those two bands took a chunk of the notoriety, there were plenty of great bands that called the label home. One of those bands was The Anniversary. The Lawrence, Kansas band shared musical similarities with both TGUK and Saves the Day, but were unafraid to branch off into slightly more synthesised terrain that gave their songs an added element. Coupled with their super easy to digest harmonies and fantastic male/female vocals, songs like “The D in Detroit” still has a place in countless “favorite playlists” all these years later.
Since their initial break-up, guitarist and vocalist Josh Berwanger has been busy writing and recording a bevy of music under the moniker Berwanger. His recent discography is a talented kaleidoscope of songs that traverse genres from folk and indie, to more rock and straight forward singer/songwriter fare. There was plenty to like on his 2016 album Exorcism Rock, an album that delved into a little bit of psychedelia and fuzzed out indie rock. His 2017 album And the Star Invaders saw a gradual move away from the more electrified to the imaginative kind of singer/songwriter we’ve seen from the likes of Devendra Banhart. True to form, Berwanger continues to evolve as a songwriter, and his latest, Watching A Garden Die, is the next chapter in his thriving songwriter cabinet.
The gloomily titled record is mostly upbeat and diverse. While he may have shown a kinship to indie/folk songwriting of the Banharts and Obersts of the world previously, Watching a Garden Die features the kind of seasoned and more classic toned work you’d find on a Crosby, Stills & Nash record, or even a Paul Simon record. Songs like the softly, almost whispered “Even the Darkness Doesn’t Know”, and quietly moody, introspective “Paper Blues” (until that electric guitar solo hits) harks back to a time long ago of unfettered hair and soulful folk music. The album’s best moment is probably a combination of the wistful, pedal-steel toned Americana of “When I Was Young” and the equally effective, spacey indie rock of “The Business of Living”. The latter giving Grandaddy a run for their money in that music department. These two songs in particular showcase an artist fully aware and capable of his abilities to craft music that’s personal but exhibits the kind of draw you want from a record this close to the heart.
The album doesn’t have the more ruckus moments Berwanger exhibited in his earlier work (outside of perhaps, the more upbeat power-pop, new wavy “Bad Vibrations”). At times the album takes just a few listens to grab you. But when you listen to songs like the spritely “Friday Night” and the somber reflection of the twangy “I Keep Telling Myself” a few times more, you find the depth of the record. There are elements that reveal themselves on the second, third, fourth listen, and that’s rewarding.
Berwanger’s songwriting ability was never in doubt, and his new material continues to expand his songwriting reach. Watching a Garden Die, while not a frantic effort, is quiet composure.
Fences – Failure Sculptures
Failure Sculptures is a steady outing
Christopher Mansfield, under his alter-ego, Fences, has made himself well known through the collaborations with Macklemore and Tegan & Sara. It’s set him up with well-deserved excitement for his new album Failure Sculptures. The genre of pop scores a good reputation with artists like Fences. I wouldn’t necessarily categorize this album as pop, but Failure Sculptures has catchy songs that will appeal to a large scale, however it keeps the integrity of accomplished music. Each song provides a story that allows you to drift into your own thoughts. He also uses idioms like there is no tomorrow.
“A Mission” is a lower-toned song that launches the album with an echoing sound of voice and guitar, and it sets an example of the whimsical type of music that is shown throughout the album. Mansfield has a way with words and was definitely listening in English class. A+ for storytelling. OK, you twisted my arm, I’ll point out some idioms: “body sways like trees in a storm” sung in “Paper Route” and “lately I just pass by like a cloud” heard in “Brass Band”. It’s a great way to paint a picture in your listeners head.
“Same Blues” exposes a folk side to Fences. It has a lovely addition of cello in the background. It is enchanting and flows so well, which makes a terrific inclusion to the album. The plucking and acoustic sound of “Wooden Dove” has a powerful effect, and suits the song well. It follows the theme of echoes and storytelling. Although “War Kid” is a song about divorce, it is a pleasant way to end the album, and it features more idioms; “tears falling like bombs“.
This type of music allows you to drift and flow in and out of your own thoughts. It’s a friendly haunting and emotionally driven set of songs (and don’t forget about the idioms), and while it is quite predictable in a pleasant way, Failure Sculptures is a steady outing.