Last Last Night: Modest Mouse at the Grove

Last Saturday, really: Modest Mouse and The Night Marchers at the Grove of Anaheim, Aug. 29, 2009.

Better than: Getting into a thumb war during a night at the opera. Read on…

I don't remember a whole lot from the last time I saw Modest Mouse, which was in 2004 at Soma in San Diego, but I do remember this: There were some lame people at that concert. As in, I left wondering, “Who moshes at a Modest Mouse show?” Similar takeaway this time at the Grove. But worse!  Two dudes right next to me got into a three-round fist fight, complete with pinned-to-the-ground-sorta-choking-one-another action. What the hell?

In a fundamental way, it seems ridiculous that a Modest Mouse show would be a testosterone party. After all, it's indie rock, the wussy, quirky emotional stuff that Natalie Portman is supposed to listen to. The public knows Modest Mouse as the guys behind “Float On” and “Dashboard,” two unashamedly hummable, sunny-sounding songs. They like to make albums that are the color of Pepto-Bismol. Plus: Their name is Modest Mouse.

But that's all bullshit, of course, and it doesn't take much thought to come up with an explanation for why brutes would love Modest Mouse. For 16 years, Isaac Brock has crafted a music that seems by, if not for, the Thinking Brute. The Sensitive Brute. Brock's fat; he scowls and drinks and has been known to throw punches himself. He likes cussin'. His lyrics obsess about death — and usually, he's either mad at the fact that everyone dies or at the fact that he himself can't quite live accordingly. His band's two big hits, of course, are more upbeat than that, but you get the sense that the poptimism of “we'll all float on, alright” and “it coulda been worse than we have ever known” are smiley-faced affirmations that Brock swiped from anger management courses. Scratch an inch deep on any of his albums, and you'll find he hasn't left sourness behind.

You could argue that this tension — basically, mortality-obsessed pessimism versus mortality-inspired seize-the-day-ism — is the most interesting thing about Modest Mouse's recent releases, starting with 2004's Good News For People Who Love Bad News. Typing, I'm realizing how obvious this point is: Brock pretty much outted his Modest Mouse 2.0 lyrical fascination with that album's title. The good news for people who love bad news? It's this: Yes, we die and life is meaningless, so there's no reason you shouldn't carpe some effing diem. Or as Brock puts it on “Satellite Skin,” the single from the band's brand new odds-and-ends collection No One's First And You're Next, “happy fucking congratulations, everyone wins.”

Some of this comes out on stage. Brock makes stabs at putting on a good show, but he gives off distinct whiff of “what the fuck does it matter” regardless. I was impressed to see Brock do a bit of between-song talking to the audience, but either his mealy-mouthiness or the reverb (?) on the mic meant that it all pretty much sounded like the adults talking in a Peanuts cartoon. I'm pretty sure he thanked the audience, and I'm pretty sure he didn't know where he was. Who knows. He smiled, at least.

Ditto concept — nice, but not too nice — with the set-list, which avoided the huge crowd pleasers and went for the songs that seem more like pleasers for Isaac and the die-hards. No “Float On” or “Dashboard,” but some really excellent cuts (“Third Planet,” “Gravity Rides Everything,” “Tiny Cities Made Of Ashes) from the band's most excellent album (The Moon And Antarctica). A good number of songs came from No One's First, but not the well-liked “King Rat” (pop culture law requires me to mention that its terrifying cartoon video was directed by Heath Ledger). And seemingly for every song from the Modest Mouse post-2004 happy era, there was a piece from the lonesome, rocking '90s albums: “Breakthrough,” “Talking Shit About a Pretty Sunset,” “Shit Luck,” “Interstate 8.”  Great songs, and Brock and the band played them well. Just well — not inspired.

After a way-too-long break before the final encore, the band closed with the Beach Boys homage/campfire singalong “The Good Times Are Killing Me.” I suppose that's fitting given that at least two people in the audience came for a good time and ended up trying to kill one another. To future brawlers, though, I leave this advice: Just because you're seeing Isaac Brock doesn't mean you have to act like Isaac Brock. After all, who would want to be such an asshole?

Personal Bias:
My plus one? My dad. He loves The Moon And Antarctica. Throw that detail in “reasons why Modest Mouse is not a group you'd expect people to get violent about.”

Random Detail:
Arrived in the middle of the Night Marchers' set. They sounded like pretty good, if generic, rock. Worked hard at it; seemed to define the cliche “they left it all up there” — which can't quite be said for the headliner.

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