For a band older than the majority of our university’s students, Modest Mouse exhibited immense energy at Cain’s Ballroom two Fridays ago. The band is touring for their most recent album, Strangers to Ourselves, but their setlist was only a quarter new material; the rest were “oldies but goodies” that kept the crowd dancing for hours.
The opening artist was experimental to the core, although Modest Mouse’s selection of opener Stardeath and White Dwarfs became comprehensible upon comparison of the former’s harshest instrumental breaks with the latter’s entire performance (minus the vocalist’s contributions). The decade-old band from Norman, Okla., has collaborated with The Flaming Lips on multiple projects since their lead singer, Dennis Coyne, is the nephew of Wayne Coyne, the Lips’ lead.
Edging close to the math-rock genre, Stardeath and White Dwarfs relied heavily on their bassist and drummer to provide driving rhythms behind their pieces. Along with vertical light strips pulsating in time with the music and the drummer’s falsetto backing, instrumental solos were the most notable details of the performance, which wavered discordantly between mellow and metal.
Following an abnormally long delay after Stardeath’s exit, Modest Mouse’s members appeared in the midst of blue lights and fog and ambient buzzing white noise. A few snowy owl figurines had also made their way onto the stage—predators pressuring Modest Mouse to produce a prime performance, lest they be prey (that’s my theory, anyway).
Beginning with a lesser-known track from a 1999 Japan-only release, is a move that only a band as well-established as Modest Mouse could pull off so well. Dark Center of the Universe was as warmly received as I expect Float On would have been. The latter is their number-one gilded single and a track that surprisingly wasn’t played at this concert at all.
Moving into a couple newer pieces did nothing but amp up the energy in the ballroom, as Sugar Boats led smoothly into Lampshades on Fire before the lead vocalist and guitarist, Isaac Brock, broke character to chat with the audience.
Turquoise-painted fingernails that were constantly pushing a floppy lock of hair off his forehead in combination with a flamingoed shirt lent a quirky exuberance to Brock’s mannerisms that was jarringly conflicting with his serious rocker persona.
Four more older songs followed, including 2007’s popular Missed the Boat, and Bukowski, a pluckily nihilistic dirge inspired by the titular German poet. Then came one of my personal favorites: Pups to Dust, a philosophical ditty about perceptions and purpose, wrapped up in ethereal vocals by the sole female in Modest Mouse, Lisa Molinaro, and tucked neatly into the middle of Strangers to Ourselves.
Dashboard signaled the halfway point in the concert, and the crowd’s enthusiasm was at its pinnacle as well.
Out of the subsequent five songs, just two were from post-2007, but since everywhere I looked people were belting out choruses, it was clear the band knew their fans would appreciate their older work.
Closing the pre-encore set with Doin’ the Cockroach was a fantastic decision.
Brock led his ensemble in increasingly violent, lurching loudness to a frenzied conclusion that saw him licking his guitar pickups prior to suddenly vacating the stage. The speakers emitted sounds like beehives again, hinting that Modest Mouse wasn’t quite finished for the night.
Predictably, the group entered again and launched into Satellite Skin, one of the few singles populating the gap between Modest Mouse’s 2007 and 2015 albums. Paper Thin Walls’ haunting folksiness led into a nearly ten-minute rendition of Night on the Sun that vacillated between immersive melodies and blistering drumbeats.
Owning the extended version of that song has fostered in me a great appreciation for its uplifting instrumental smoothness. With its repetitive lyrics, you’d think Night on the Sun would have less impact than other of Brock’s metaphor and philosophy-packed tracks. Yet it remains an enduring piece. The positive energy it radiated throughout Cain’s made the show’s end more tolerable.
The Good Times Are Killing Me and This Devil’s Workday concluded Modest Mouse’s splendid performance; some audience hopefuls were milling about claiming that a second encore was forthcoming, but I noticed that the humming which had permeated the air between previous sets was absent and moved to exit before security began shooing us out.
Assuming Isaac Brock was the orchestrator of that auditory detail leaves me even further impressed with the amount of care Modest Mouse’s lead, and only constant member since their 1992 founding, apparently puts into all of the band’s undertakings.
Deciding what attendees heard when the band wasn’t even on stage and changing from a shirt adorned with one species of tropical bird to another (flamingoes to toucans) were small items over which Brock took charge for Modest Mouse’s performance at Cain’s, and the experience was all the better for his creative leadership.