By Daniel Haier
“So, are you guys all fucked up?” asks the gentleman urinating beside me in the Arlington Theatre bathroom.
The seven of us lined up do not respond as we conduct our business. Perhaps we stayed silent because we were very fucked up and didn’t want to draw attention to ourselves, or we didn’t want to break that unspoken code of the men’s room: No talking.
“Well I am,” the man continues. “And you should be too; it’s Modest Mouse.”
Despite all the notorious accounts of singer Isaac Brock taking the stage while under the influence – and my own observation from the two previous times I’ve seen him perform – Brock looked unusually together in front of last Friday night’s sold-out crowd.
Leaning heavily on material from its 2004 release Good News For People Who Love Bad News, Modest Mouse hatched a 90-minute set and two-song encore. Extra attention to back up vocals and a two-drummer setup helped smooth Brock’s characteristically brusque lyrical delivery, in addition to helping replicate the deep layering of the band’s studio sound.
But, like his music, there was more going on beneath the “Jim’s my name, fox hunting’s my game” T-shirt. From finding happiness in despair and life in death, to deriving fulfillment from utter loneliness and satisfaction in moral bankruptcy, Brock’s lyrics and music have always explored the most polarized of contradictions – the definitions of success and failure.
“But if my free time’s gone would you promise this; that you will please bury me with it,” Brock belts to a crowd that yells along. “We are hummingbirds who are just not willing to move.”
Brock alternates between singing into a standard stage microphone and a CB radio microphone attached to a stand, the latter of which gives his voice the distant, crackling quality of a dispatcher’s voice piped through a long haul trucker’s radio.
From the radio hit “Float On,” to the lesser known “Dramamine” and “Interstate 8,” Brock played the band’s quiet-loud dynamic a little angrier during the angry parts, and a little more hopeful during the hopeful parts, showing a noticeable disease for drifting toward the middle.
And then there was the banjo.
“Are you dead or are you sleeping,” Brock questions over the twang slap of his banjo strings and the bass drawl of a cello on “Satin in a Coffin.”
“Oh I sure hope you are dead,” he yells.
While tracks such as “The Ocean Breathes Salty” and Lonesome Crowded West favorite “Trailer Trash” were missing from the set, Modest Mouse delivered “Doin’ the Cockroach” and “The View;” the two songs serving as a point-counter-point balance to Brock’s evening of contradictions.
“I was in heaven I was in hell, believe in neither but fear ’em as well,” he sings along with the crowd in “Cockroach.”
“As life gets longer, awful feels softer and it feels pretty soft to me,” Brock sings in “The View.”
“And if it takes shit to make bliss then I feel pretty blissfully.”
During encore songs “Bankrupt on Sellin'” and “Third Planet,” Brock’s words hammer home the point that has so resonated with the disaffected college students buying the band’s records: There’s a lot to be weary of in this world, but if you get tired of that, there’s a lot to be weary of in other worlds as well.