Washington-based indie rockers, Modest Mouse's 1996 debut is entitled This is a Long Drive for Someone With Nothing to Think About
for a damn good reason. As it is the type of album one might listen to if they were on such a drive. Just to put things in perspective, this album was written almost an entire decade before "Float On" propelled them -for better of for worse- into mainstream, alternative rock band territory. For those that only know the band's material from that point forward, this is album is a far cry from that distinctively more radio-friendly sound.Long Drive
is probably the most overlooked and underappreciated work to come from the band's golden era. Simply for the reason that it is often thought of as being too long and abbrasive to be digested by anyone other than the die-hard Modest Mouse fan. As it did for me, it would undoubtedly take more than a few listens to truly grasp its beauty. However, it is not quite as inaccessible as it is thought to be.
At this point, the band was a three-piece consisting of guitarist/vocalist Isaac Brock, bassist Eric Judy and drummer Jeremiah Green. The best thing about this album is the band's delibarate and precise approach to songcraft. They know exactly where they are going with each idea down to the smallest detail. Brock's guitar work is complex, angular and abbrasive at times, yet melodic and hook-friendly. But it is nothing, if not intricate. Judy compliments Brock's more experimental style with his smooth, whistful and flowing bass lines. Green is the glue to hold them together and is always on point. Judy and Green combine to make a truly fearsome rhythm section. The group combines their unique and differing styles to create beautiful, sprawling soundscapes.
Brock's tone as a lyricist at this point in his career, is cynical and unsure of himself and the world around him. This is most evident in a humbling moment in the song Make Everyone Happy/Mechanical Birds
, when Brock quips, "I'm not sure who I am." This line in particular serves as a mission statement not only for the album, but for the inexperience of the band and the things that were to come in the following years as well.
Brock is noted for being the type of writer who creates characters. Of these, he has many but the one that appears most on the album is his bitter self that refuses to submit to the urban civilization that is encroaching upon his rural, northwestern lifestyle. This is a common theme on the album, especially on Novocain Stain
and Beach Side Property
. While he is certainly confused and unsure, he should not be mistaken for naive.
It must be noted that this album was written when the band members were only 18-20 years old, so this is well before they had truly come into their own as songwriters. They had yet to perfect their style which accounts for the album dragging on in some places and some ideas simply falling flat. But when put in the context of how these stumbles were better executed on their later work, they add to the charm and raw feel of this album. Still, despite the lack of clarity and focus at times, the band runs a pretty tight ship.
The album opens with Dramamine
which really puts the "long drive" in the album's title. It begins with Judy's rolling, whistful and treble-heavy bass line that might be mistaken for a guitar on first listen. The riff is repeated throughout which allows Brock to expand and let loose. Then it marches abruptly into the shouty, gutter punk Breakthrough
. And then onto some more forgettable tracks that don't play well on their own. Then it picks up again with a run of three remarkable tracks -beginning with Lounge
- which really showcase Brock's prowess and technical chops as a guitarist. The turning point of the album is "Novocain Stain." It begins slowly with Brock voicing his concerns housing developments sprouting up that are "named after the things they replace," when suddenly, Green steals the show and forces the listener to see that they are a force to be reckoned with. It turns into an all-out frenzy, complete with Brock's fuller and more rhythmic playing and Judy's octave-heavy and dancable bass line. But Green is the real hero here as he lets loose a torrent of unforeseen stadium-style drum fills and triumphantly thrusts the band through the song's finish line. Talking Shit About a Pretty Sunset
is another standout track that works in a similar fashion. Then comes the centerpiece, "Make Everyone Happy/Mechanical Birds." It is a tour-de-force in the least traditional sense. It begins as a slow folk number with Brock on banjo instead of guitar. At the 3-minute mark, he ditches the banjo for his Wicks Custom and lets loose a cascade of his signature harmonics and pitch bends. The song crescendos to a shattering climax with Brock emitting unearthly sounds -apparently mimicking the sound of "mechanical birds"- unlike anything I've heard before or since. The album should have ended on that note but the band chose to end with the short and unnecessary Space Travel Is Boring
All in all, while some ideas fall flat of their intended targets and one or two tracks could have been left out altogether, it would be narrow-sighted to say that the album is unlistenable or undigestible. Though far from perfect, it deserves as much recognition and acclaim as The Moon & Antarctica
or The Lonesome Crowded West
. It is truly a masterpiece and, if nothing else, distinctly Modest Mouse.Score: 9.1/10