I'll just cut to the chase and get right to answering the first question on any Modest Mouse fan's mind: What does the new material sound like? Let me assure you that it sounds great. It's a mature sound, but that doesn't mean it's boring in any way.
Modest Mouse's November 6 show at the Wiltern was the band's second live appearance with new member Johnny Marr, famous mostly for being a founding member of the Smiths. It also came after the band had announced it was delaying the release of its next album, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, from the end of this year to sometime early in 2007. So going in I thought the night would be dominated by new material, the band members using a handful of gigs to work out whatever final kinks still knotted up their fresh batch of songs. Surprising, then, to find the incarnation that some blogs have already taken to calling Modest Marr running through most of the band's most recent album, 2004's Good News for People Who Love Bad News. More surprising still that only three of the night's songs were culled from material that predates that album.
Saying Modest Mouse's sound is more fleshed-out and muscular is stating the obvious. After some years as trio, the band got Dan Galluci back from the Murder City Devils, constantly keep an extra drummer around in case Jeremiah Green has another mental breakdown, and really scored a coup getting Marr on board.
At first, it wasn't clear what new wrinkle Marr brought to the band. Isaac Brock was still solidly center stage on "Ocean Breathes Salty" and "Black Cadillacs," especially when he executed his signature move of stopping playing guitar to more fully grab the mike, puff his chest out, and grandstand like a holy roller trying to save souls. He killed the natural momentum of "Paper Thin Walls" by stopping mid-song to point out the obvious -- that the second half of the tune is just a retread of the first.
Marr started to shine, though, as the band focused more on new material. Much of it definitely has more of an '80s Smiths/Cure vibe than Modest Mouse has ever shown, what with Galluci almost full-time on synths now. Marr's playing really aimed for the heavens on "World At Large," which had only him on guitar as Brock took to another keyboard. And Marr's and Brock's guitars deftly weaved in and out of each other on encore closer "Dramamine."
It's puzzling and disappointing that Modest Mouse didn't play anything from what's arguably its career pinnacle, 1997's The Lonesome Crowded West. Also conspicuously missing were rarity gems and usual live staples "Interstate 8" and "Never Ending Math Equation." Instead, the band of course played "Float On" (and may have felt obligated to do so, because it was a KROQ-sponsored show). This crowd loved it, whereas when I last saw Modest Mouse at the All Tomorrow's Parties curated by the band members, the more indie-leaning audience actually booed that breakthrough hit, like a sports crowd turning on a disappointing home team.
Still, I'm quite assured the next Modest Mouse album will be great. It might not have the scabrous acidity of the band's previous work, but it seems it will be no less essential.