Modest Mouse: A Singular Review

The first band to make an everlasting impression on me was Modest Mouse. They were my first: my first concert, my first band t-shirt, my first (new) vinyl. I can vividly remember the first time I heard them on mainstream radio. My ex-boyfriend and I were driving down Geary in San Francisco, and I screamed so loudly he almost veered out of the lane. We immediately pulled into the Tower Records outpost near Mel’s Diner, and I proudly bought the first CD to gain them far-reaching recognition–Good News For People Who Love Bad News.

A lot has changed since then. Different boyfriend, different car; Tower Records long since in the grave, and it’s Geary store closed to become a carpet store, and ultimately its current incarnation: a Chase bank. I don’t fervently love Modest Mouse as I once did, but this is not because I’m so effected as to dump a favorite indie band once it’s gone mainstream. Rather, the Kerouac-obsessed teenager that feel in love with them grew up, and became a 30-year-old with a more complex agenda.

Seeing them perform at First City Festival a few years back was quite the anachronistic experience as my memories met the present state of things. The venue was huge compared to the dives in which I’d formerly seen them around Los Angeles, although the crowd was just as stoned and amorous. The production was vast, with a coordinated light show and the stage populated by a million instruments, musicians, and sound techs–a far cry from the homeless guy they adopted and performed with many moons ago, and the handful of well-worn guitars that accompanied them.

In short, the music was a far cry from the raw garage rock I’d worn out in my childhood bedroom and experienced in the Los Angeles of yesterday. This, however, is the inevitable progression of things as artists mature into different states of minds and their music follows suit. When I began to part ways with Modest Mouse, I was also a far cry from that suburban Los Angeles bedroom, and moving north had matured my priorities as I immersed myself in local San Francisco music–national commodities be-damned! But Modest Mouse and I didn’t break up, we were just on a very long break.

“The Best Room”, the first single off their forthcoming album Strangers To Ourselves, has brought me back into the fold. It showcases everything I love about Modest Mouse: Brock’s digestibly intellectual lyrics and devil-may-care delivery, with all its transitional cracks; those stuccato guitar riffs that are undeniably Modest Mouse, and are perhaps the part of their music most influential on succeeding bands; and the abrupt ending that is jarring, and lingers in the silence after the song–so disrespectful to traditional songwriting, and utterly memorable.

While I don’t foresee myself playing their newest album with obsessive repetition as I did with This Is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About, I do intend to buy it and savor it with nostalgic appreciation. Because Modest Mouse has traveled far, seen much and endured more, and come out on the other side in command of their own sound–a feat not replicated by many a 1990s wunderkind in the lonesome crowded west of popular music. And there’s definitely something to be said for that.

Sleater-Kinney and the Feminist Fist

Sleater-Kinney

For many of my music loving brethren, an older sibling played a pivotal role in their musical development. This left me, an only child, at an effervescent disadvantage. Luckily my Motown-loving Father and folk-favoring Mother gave me a solid foundation, but they did nothing to help me branch into my own decade. In this vacuum, I had to rely on the older neighbor girl who introduced me to The New Kids on the Block instead of The Talking Heads–a band I would much prefer to cite as my gateway musical drug.

It wasn’t until high school that I truly began to diversify thanks to chain record stores and the older brother of my first boyfriend. Remember, this was a pre-internet age that Apple hadn’t yet iTransformed; you actually had to leave the house and moderately interact with other humans (if only at checkout) in order to peruse new and old releases. For a shy, awkward teen girl with overprotective parents (again, only child) I did not often find myself alone in public, EXCEPT for places like The Warehouse and Best Buy* where Mom would let me run around and explore to my heart’s content while she attended to her own business. It was in places like these that I stumbled across Modest Mouse and Built to Spill, two of my favorite bands of all time and the opening dialog with my future boyfriend’s incredibly cool older brother.

This fella, to whom we shall refer as J, was a recent high school grad who had just joined the U.S. Marine Corps. He was a man of few words who read Bret Easton Ellis novels and wore a lot of black. I was awe struck, not sexually speaking (I want to get that out of the way) but rather in the way that only kids are always looking for surrogate sources to brothers and/or sisters. It sounds creepy, but it’s not; this is not a Single White Female situation. To some extent, solo kiddos such as we are unsocialized and ever grateful for a little guidance. Having just delved into the Kerouac literary catalog while clutching every Modest Mouse album I could find close to the chest, I was ripe for a cultural infusion J was only too happy to provide. What he loaned me were the aforementioned Ellis novels as well as CDs ranging from Cab Calloway to The White Stripes, all of which I greedily burned and played to death.

This is when J gave me the gift of Sleater-Kinney in all their Riot grrrl glory. For those who are unfamiliar, the Riot grrrl movement was partially incubated in Olympia, Washington, where Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker–founding Sleater-Kinneyians–were attending Evergreen State College in the early 1990s. Often associated with third wave feminism, Riot Grrrl music gave women an outlet in a typically male dominated punk realm as grrls lyrically unleashed taboo topics such as rape, patriarchy and domestic abuse without apology. In her book “Words + Guitars: The Riot Grrl Movement and Third-Wave Feminism”, Hilary Belzer explains how the movement sought to develop mediums that spoke to girls who were “tired of boy band after boy band, boy zine after boy zine, boy punk after boy punk…BECAUSE a safe space needs to be created for girls where we can open our eyes and reach out to each other without being threatened by this sexist society and our day to day bullshit.”

If you think about it, this motive is not dissimilar to the socio-educational rhetoric of the mid- and late-1990s. Everywhere I turned, parents and teachers were discussing how I felt and where I stood. Do girls feel comfortable raising their hands to speak their minds in co-ed classrooms? Are girls athletic programs given as much play as boys? We were given Murphy Brown and Title 9 to look to, but by rioting these grrrls spoke to an undercurrent that could never have been mainstreamed on television screens or in legislation. For me, grrrls like Brownstein and Tucker spoke of being sold out to and sucked in by teenage hormones–a predatory right of passage that often floated boys adrift on a testosterone tidal wave of conquest but just as often left girls with a handful of shiny placations, gemstones we thought were diamonds but revealed themselves to be nothing but paste. This is the dynamic that makes a promiscuous football player a legend and the equally adventurous cheerleader a slut on a high school campus, but I had never thought about that before listening to Sleater-Kinney’s eponymous album. MIND BLOWN.

Songs like “A Real Man,” “How To Play Dead,” and “Sold Out” turned my teenage angst into a feminist fist, and continue to resonate with me albeit in a different tenor. Sleater-Kinney is no longer on the road, except for one glorious reunion show of my dreams late last year where they shared the stage with Pearl Jam, and Carrie Brownstein is probably more recognized wielding a heavy dose of irony on Portlandia than she is for wielding a guitar. We grow up and things change. However, the beauty of aging is self awareness, and the falling away of the fog that causes young girls to thrash about in feminist fatigues. This is not to say that I am any less a feminist, but rather that I prefer to speak softly and carry a big stick. Instead of locking myself in my room, hitting play on Sleater-Kinney and writing terrible poetry about future things I hadn’t quite grasped, I pour myself a glass of wine, cue up the same album on Spotify and write about the things I remember. BECAUSE I know my voice has value. BECAUSE the space I write in is paid for by my own labor. BECAUSE now I’m old enough to know it’s the grrrl that makes the riot, and not the riot that makes the grrrl.

*This past Christmas, I wanted to buy my little cousin CDs I had loved when I was his age in an attempt to be for him the sherpa I never had. Not knowing my surroundings well, I opted to patron a Best Buy–the place I had purchased a vast majority of my CDs when I was a tween. Almost as soon as I walked through those automated doors a pit formed in my stomach: “I bet they don’t sell CDs anymore,” I said to myself. Technically, they do still sell CDs but it’s a random assortment of nothing anyone wants to buy. And as I rummaged through the pitiful, multi-genre chaos…I felt old.

Taking the Internet to Task

Reluctant Blogger

Let’s call a spade a spade. A writer’s promotion of his/her writing is an incredibly narcissistic act because it signals their belief that their opinions are worth merit, worth your time, worth a permanent place in type set into mankind’s artistic chronicle. “I am a delicate snowflake, here is my flurry; you’re welcome” could be the dedication of many books, particularly those of an autobiographical nature. That said, I am a reluctant blogger. As a freelance writer of the 21st-century it’s the best tool to expand my “brand” by showcasing my ability to use words good, defining my artistic eye and promoting my sense of music in conjunction with Twitter and Instagram. However, by expanding my online presence I’ve exposed my unique insights to copyright infringement and plagiarism I’ve not the resources to combat, and unintentionally invited internet creepers to send me emails in which they call me “Little Girlie” and ask to view and share lewd photos (a real thing that really happened). The internet is as disgusting as it is enlightening, as much a resource as is it a source for distraction and is also the ultimate manifestation of narcissism in many ways. Facebook, Foursquare, Google+, Path, Pinterest, SoundCloud, Tumblr, Vine: nobody is interesting enough to create and divide content on that many platforms.

Part of my beef with blogging is the preponderance of uneducated and uncritical posts. To clarify, I don’t use “uncritical” to mean lacking in criticism but rather to pinpoint synthetic contributions to the stream. Generating blank content such as uploading a photograph or inputting a quote without context or discussion only adds to the barrage of unexplained crap on the internet and serves as yet another superficial layer through which one must sift in order to find something worth reading or viewing. Too many sound-bytes, not enough polyphonic sound. Perhaps a more disturbing trend is the democratization of the role of critic. Whereas I’ve clearly benefited from this, I’ve also often said any asshole can have a blog, and in lieu of credentials many bloggers feel the need to savagely attack whatever it is they’re reviewing. Be it music, literature, art or movies, they break their subject down to build themselves up, mistakenly assuming a soap box and an authoritative tone produce the sum of a critique. I ask, for what purpose? I don’t want to read about an album or book that sucks, I want to be turned on to works that will give me chills and send me reeling onto the next thing inspired and engaged.

This opinion was solidified after watching a friend’s band solicit album reviews from music blogs. One such blog (which shall remain nameless) would review any band that paid them with writers who were “hired” merely because they left 100+ comments on the site. This band was given a review that was artless, cruel and untrue–that went through the album song by song to note why each one sucked, and gave no further information on the artist outside of that one album. In addition, the site made no mention that the review had been written in exchange for money. That is not a review, it’s an un-researched 3rd Grade essay without a hypothesis that conceals its ulterior motive. Clearly I’m biased towards and protective of my buddy’s band, but I’ve also reviewed albums semi-professionally and know a farce when I see it. This type of jury-rigged scholarship void of professionalism is described perfectly by Noam Chomsky in his observations on Twitter from the recent book Power Systems: “If you look at [tweets], they have a fairly consistent character. They give the impression of being something that someone just thought of…If you thought for two minutes, or if you had made the slight effort involved in looking up the topic, you wouldn’t have sent it.”

I’ve attempted to counteract (or at least not add to) these problems with this blog in a few ways. First, this site offers no paid content. Just as James Franco recently quantified his own process at a Commonwealth Club event in San Francisco, I merely attempt to understand certain forms of art through other forms of art–literature as an instrument of music, philosophy as a photographic lens, and so on and so forth–as a holistic approach to understanding my world, offering no answers merely unpaid observations. Second, I’ve added a brief biography in the margins to note an academic background and provide professional footing. While this makes me vulnerable to the aforementioned creeps, content written in anonymity engenders no confidence from the reader. If nothing else, I want my relationship with you, kind reader, to be genuine so the trade-off is worthwhile to me. Third, I do not write negative posts. The blogosphere and more traditional media outlets are already screaming with negativity and I see no need to turn up its volume; instead, I want to change the channel to something that has tickled my fancy and hopefully will do so to yours. At the core of this is the fact that I am neither a musician nor a filmmaker, not a baker, not a painter, and far be it for me to identify flaws in a song or a bundt cake I couldn’t dream of making.

Unchecked content, however, is not my only issue with the internet and its derivatives. In addition to his thoughts on Twitter in Power Systems, Chomsky talks of an “atomization” in today’s society. As we increasingly channel our efforts into online communities, our earth-bound relationships are suffering. We connect better with avatars than we do with the faces that sit beside us on the bus, and we are measured not by what we say in a job interview but by how well our LinkedIn account is formatted. Selfies have seemingly become more relevant and revelatory than the Self outside the computer, which is ironic considering the backbone of online communities is often anonymity as every Tom, Dick and Harry register blogs that thrive on sensationalism and unsupported facts. There’s a name for this: it’s called Yellow Journalism.

These fears are not my sole property.  What technology is doing to us and has done to us is widely studied, and the dearth of reputable, intellectually stimulating content in popular culture is bemoaned by every generation from Lincoln’s time to our own. Perhaps it’s motivated by a fear of change, or maybe just the human tendency to bitch about our present because misery loves company. Whatever the reason, poets and scientists alike are fascinated by the fluctuating intricacies of human interaction–hence the writing of poetry, hence the practice of psychology (which are two sides of the same coin, really). The universality of the fears expressed in this piece became more real to me after reading the poem “Emerging” from Pablo Neruda’s Extravagaria (1974):

“A man says yes without knowing / how to decide even what the question is / and is caught up, and then is carried along / and never again escapes from his cocoon; / and that’s how we are, forever falling / into the deep well of other beings; / and one thread wraps itself around our necks, / another entwines a foot, and then it is impossible, / impossible to move except in the well— / nobody can rescue us from other people.

It seems as if we don’t known how to speak; / it seems as if there are words which escape, / which are missing, which have gone away and left us / to ourselves, tangled up in snares and threads.

And all at once, that’s it; we no longer know / what it’s all about, but we are deep inside it, / and now we will never see with the same eyes / as once we did when we were children playing. / Now these eyes are closed to us, / now our hands emerge from different arms.”

This, I suppose, is why I blog in the face of internet stalkers and the stigma of irresponsible blogging. Obviously, there are a plethora of brilliant bloggers and internet entrepreneurs who have used online tools to great effect, and have bettered the world because of it; thank goodness they were given the opportunities afforded by online marketplaces. This post is not meant to discount them, it is merely an attempt to offer my observations, state some of my fears and start a dialogue. For I fear binary numbers are usurping words, and the sterile future this fact implies is very scary to me. When we devalue the impact of words we shatter the importance of language as it’s used to communicate with members of our community–the one in which we move by day and not the one we fabricate by night while in the privacy of our shuttered homes. Anonymity afforded online breeds nothing good, and avatars with unspecified agendas hold no one accountable and bring nothing new to the table. In this vacuum of accountability, the social contract is subverted and we enter a realm fabricated from haphazardly connected content that does not foster ingenuity, which is the product of shared ideas of merit. Instead, it often leads to bickering fueled by a neoliberal obsession with profit in its most potent forms: fame or fortune. God, who’d want to be, God who’d want to be such an asshole.

So…my name is Nicole Meldahl, this is my blog and I wrote this piece while listening to “Bukowski” by Modest Mouse. Discuss.