The Case for This is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About
By Sam Tornow, Editorial Director
It’s 1996 and you’re about to embark on the drive from Olympia to Seattle. It’s November and your hand-me-down Accord’s heat is busted. Out of your peripheral vision, you see a cold looking tape under the passenger seat, it’s the one you bought from the openers last week at The Goat House. You figure, “what the hell”, I’ve heard the new Built to Spill tape one too many times anyway, crack open the case and slip it in.
There’s a strange guitar intro that sounds like what a fly would see if it was on ecstasy. It’s hypnotic. A lispy voice spits strained words that you can barely understand overtop a ropy bass and poorly recorded, tight drums. If you had synthesia, these sounds would look like the barren, gray, soon-to-be-constructed landscape you’re driving through. The album slips under your conscious frame of reference, adding to the drive instead of distracting you from it like you originally wanted. When no cars are coming down the two-way you reach down and pick up the tape case you initially threw aside: This is a Long Drive for Someone With Nothing to Think About by Modest Mouse. “Yeah, that makes sense,” you say to yourself and chuckle.
Modest Mouse has always been a quarter-step ahead of anyone in their genre. In the ‘90s they outran the grunge and early indie artists with a sincerity of self rather rather than hatred of the government or romantic garbage, and in one of the most up-and-coming music scenes in the country, that connected with a lot of people. After months of chain-smoking their way through house venues and playing in bars, they were too young to drink in, the band released their now-legendary debut, This is a Long Drive for Someone With Nothing to Think About.
For the mid-2000s fan of the group, This is a Long Drive is a far stretch; the “weird” early album with the ugly artwork, that happens to have “Dramamine” on it. It’s quite a departure from the shiny indie-god tier albums like Good News for People Who Like Bad News and We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank, that stole the hearts of mid-level hipster suburban kids, myself included. But after a few years of toeing the waters of the band’s newer releases, there’s nothing like the deep sea cuts from their starting point.
This is a Long Drive for Someone With Nothing to Think About’s true charm is in it’s writing. Frontman Isaac Brock has always been known for his wit, but unlike later releases, he’s not pandering to an audience, he’s spitting pure, untethered truth. Brock’s wit comes in the form of one-liners like “Oh noose tied myself in, tied myself too tight/Talking shit about a pretty sunset”, “She sat, she sat in the backseat/The car was plush but had no heat/And no not no one was blushing”, and the instant classic, “I got one two three four/Five, six, six, six”.
Of course in the mid-2000s saga of Modest Mouse, certain gems exist in the forms of “Bukowski”, Spitting Venom” and yada yada yada, however, there’s something lost in translation. We are no longer reaching to grab the tape off the floor, instead, we’re getting screamed at from stadiums while the half-baked crowd waits impatiently for “Float On”. The band deserves the stadiums and the fans, but for a group built on honesty, cynicism and critical statements about mainstream culture, things feel wobbly.
Sure, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank brought clever music videos, new fans and a hell of a concept with it, but was it worth it? Call it the evolution of an artist, call it catering to the masses, call it anything at all, but in these post-Building Nothing out of Something years, personability was traded for danceability. I admit to spinning some of the new albums, even loving some of the newer tracks, but they don’t always feel like Modest Mouse. And I miss Modest Mouse. Their early work feels like the contents between parenthesis that separate the grunge and emo movements in alternative ‘90s culture; a safe haven for those who didn’t find comfort in those scenes. And because they existed in that parenthesis, they aged better than anything reread by everyone else 200 times over.
Modest Mouse continues to release music at a steady pace, and I’ll always be waiting for the next album. And while I hope the poppy-twinges and frumpy instrumentation find their place among the sound I, and many others, grew to love, there was something really special about Isaac Brock, Eric Judy and Jeremiah Green letting us in on some of the small secrets of pacific northwest life, at time when everyone was starring the next thousand years in the face.
The Case for We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank
By Tanner Biddish, Staff Writer
Starting in the 90s, as a teenager in Seattle, Isaac Brock has been helming the ship that is Modest Mouse. Each of their releases is characteristic in its own right; all offering an aesthetic of their own, whilst still connected under the artistry of Modest Mouse; much the same way a Wes Anderson film feels distinctly itself, yet has an unmistakable authorship. Definitive of their entire career is the debut, This Is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About. It’s bleak, desolate, synonyms. But, at the same time its rife with spirit and guts. Guitars guide the listener through a haunting, introspective trip with Isaac Brock’s idiosyncratic voice – and its multiple personalities – as the only companion (“Gotta go to work! Gotta go to work! Gotta have a job!”). This Is a Long Drive, as Sam will tell you, is fantastic. It’s a pioneering moment for Modest Mouse, with a potential over polish charm that’s unique to being their first work. But it’s not my favorite.
My favorite is a bit of an underdog of an album. Maybe it’s a bias, maybe it’s because it was in my dad’s CD cabinet when I was a younger, and maybe it’s because it was my go to car trip album for five years – but my favorite Modest Mouse record is We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank, and I’ll definitely argue that it’s their best. Here’s why:
Firstly, it’s worth noting that their 2007 release sees Modest Mouse engaging a larger musical world. Singing backup on “Florida” and “We’ve Got Everything” is James Mercer of The Shins. Also guitarist of The Smiths, Johnny Marr, contributes. Through writing, recording, and even touring, Marr essentially becomes a member of the band. Don’t be fooled however, Modest Mouse doesn’t sporadically sound like The Smiths on We Were Dead. They retain a quirky and rough instrumentation that’s quintessentially them, while delving into something strange and at times schizophrenic. See “Florida” for instance. Harsh verses that a have vocal resonance of yell-speak-singing are sandwiched between melodic choruses. Then the bridge takes the tonal extreme of both and pits them back to back. The guitars rip while you can feel Isaac tear through the ending lines of the song. This work is a testament to Brock’s vocal capabilities, not just in “Florida”, but through the entirety of the album.
He makes a soft intro in the following track – an album highlight – “Parting of the Sensory”. Each musical shift mirrored in the infliction of his voice, a track that beings so gently develops into something brewing, then angry, then frantic. “Someday, something will die and somehow you’ll figure out how often you will die and something’s gonna steal your carbon”, Isaac panders nonsensically over a musical cascade from a chaotic band. He’s just bleeding with emotion as if he hardly understands what he’s even saying. Juxtaposing this on the opposite side of the album is the bridge of “Spitting Venom”, where the repetitious nature is much calmer, as if it’s meant to comfort. The contrast feels like an earned lesson picked up through the listening of the record.
Song order was keenly thoughtful on this We Were Dead. The intensity of “Parting of the Sensory” is met with the more tender “Missed the Boat”. A gentle and controlled track, that is no less a banger than any of the others. The verse mentioning “the tiny clap of little hands” has particular vocal layering like a growling whisper. It adds unexpected personality to the number, which tends to be a theme of We Were Dead. You can hear it everywhere: the faint callbacks in “We’ve Got Everything”, the aggravated narrative of “Fly Trapped In a Jar”, the low, growly in-your-ear accents in “Education”.
We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank is also not short gems. Aforementioned are “Parting of the Sensory” and “Missed the Boat”, and there’s also the unforgettable “People As Places As People”, “Spitting Venom”, and “Little Motel”. Like a berceuse to someone distant and innocent, “Little Motel” is the black sheep of the record and equally its most emotional moment. Isaac is vulnerable and empathetic. The crash of percussion into the final chorus is cathartic. It’s a powerful track.
The album doesn’t suffer from any serious flaws either. There’s a dedication to nautical motifs that makes itself known, but never steers the ship in a heavy handed way. It peaks its head out in seafaring creeks in the intros of “March Into the Sea” and “Education”, and in the allusions of “Missed the Boat”. And true to Modest Mouse are the relatable sincerities in Isaac’s lyrics: “Both halves are the better half, like a joke trying to make another joke laugh, haha” (“Steam Engenius”), and “We carried all the groceries in while hauling out the trash, if this doesn’t make us motionless I do not know what can” (“Spitting Venom”).
The album ends with yet another banger in “Invisible”. The album sails through its fourteen tracks without missing a beat. It’s never lacking, it’s never dull, and it’s always banging even in the motivated slower movements. This Is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About sets their career in motion, but We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank takes full advantage of that career. It’s a modern, mature Modest Mouse. This record, hands down, stands at the forefront of their recent career, and in my opinion their entire discography.