Modest Mouse falls into trap of mod coolness

April 24, 2007


Excited about the addition of one of their native-son guitar heroes, pun-happy British music journalists have taken to calling Isaac Brock's art-rock band "Marrdest Mouse."

Nevertheless, it was pretty much the same Modest Mouse that played a sold-out show Sunday night at the Auditorium Theatre -- which is to say the sextet, one of the most unlikely chart-toppers since the heyday of alternative rock, was a powerful musical force sorely lacking in stage presence.

Underground favorites since their formation in the Pacific Northwest of the mid-'90s, Brock and a revolving cast of supporting players won mainstream success with the quirky hit "Float On" from the 2004 album "Good News for People Who Love Bad News." The recent "We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank" is a worthy followup: a dense, quirky and wildly creative disc that is also wonderfully melodic and accessible. Unfortunately, the persona Brock sports through many of the songs -- Captain Ahab reincarnated as part punk-rocker and part wild-eyed preacher -- was present only in his strangled singing and spirited screams.

The guitarist-vocalist stayed tethered to his two microphones (one for the regular tortured vocals and another for the distorted parts) and said little to the adoring crowd beyond some mumbled comments about the vertigo-inducing heights of the Auditorium's balconies. The personification of mod cool playing a Fender Mustang and adding backing vocals on stage right, former Smiths ax slinger Johnny Marr was a valuable team player who never put his own stamp on the band: He was there to celebrate Brock's music, both the expected hits ("Float On," "Dashboard") and deeper tracks new and old.

If you didn't know who Marr was, he did less to distinguish himself than the band's two drummers, who locked into the rollicking grooves with a rare ferocity, or versatile musicians Eric Judy and Tom Peloso, who decorated the arrangements with distinctive touches such as accordion, trumpet and electric stand-up bass. If you were a Marr fan looking for a new partnership recalling the guitarist's memorable chemistry with the flamboyant Morrissey, well, it was nowhere to be found.

In terms of its pseudo-orchestral arrangements, its twisted pop hooks and its leader's unconventional voice, Modest Mouse has a lot in common with the Flaming Lips, another group of underground heroes who've won a broader following. Brock should take a cue from that band's live shows: He doesn't have to buy a space bubble, recruit an army of plushies or buy some balloons, but a little more effort in giving fans something to watch as well as to listen to would do more to turn a very good band into a great one than recruiting a celebrity guitarist.

Sandwiched as the middle group opening the show, Brooklyn, N.Y.-based indie-rockers Love as Laughter brought an impressive range of dynamics to their Velvet Underground-inspired grooves. But the early act, Grand Archives, was a real revelation. The Seattle quintet has a strong pedigree, including members of Band of Horses, the Fruit Bats and Ghost Stories, and boasted perfectly rendered four-part harmonies in its gorgeous mix of folk-rock.