Modest Mouse have become indie rock luminaries. It’s been this way since they broke into mainstream success with their certified platinum, Grammy-nominated, 2004 LP Good News for People Who Love Bad News, mostly thanks to the album’s hit single “Float On.”
When Modest Mouse walked onstage at the Akron Civic Theatre on Sept. 29, their big-league status was evident in the size and complexity of the band’s live-show lineup: three percussionists, three guitarists, two keyboard players and a bassist. At different points in the show, they pulled out violins, horns, a banjo and a slab of thin sheet metal for additional percussive spice. The sound was dazzlingly bright and loud. The low-end vibrations tickled the throat. Ear plugs were a must, but not many people in the crowd bothered wearing them.
The set opened with a brief decibel assault followed by an elaborate rendition of “The World At Large.” The recorded version from Good News is a subdued lullaby about cosmic restlessness. In concert, the song bloomed into something more ornate to match the room’s Italian Renaissance architecture.
Isaac Brock, the lead singer and guitarist, was dressed in a white sailor’s cap, pale orange rain jacket and dark jeans. Between songs, he quipped about his new lighter, recent ear infection and the hip-hop show next door at Lock 3.
“The competition is stiff tonight,” Brock said. “Grandmaster Flash is outside. Don’t go!” He seemed to be a big fan.
The band ran through longtime fan favorites like “3rd Planet” and “Doin’ the Cockroach,” as well as more popular numbers like “Fire It Up,” “Dashboard” and “Float On.” At times, the sound was so loud that every instrument blurred together into a rich block of noise. The light show tinted the band in shades of violet, turquoise and garnet, with occasional strobe stuttering. The smoke that rose to the star-dabbed ceiling smelled of high-grade incense.
It was the sort of spectacle you might expect from an experienced, professional band who’ve been touring on a massive scale for over a decade. During their first encore, the anthemic “Of Course We Know,” it was hard to discern that this was the same band who, in the mid-90s, planned to release the half-baked Sad Sappy Sucker as their debut record. The cutesy jangle of “Birds vs Worms” seems quaint and innocent, like stopping in on band practice at the neighbor kids’ house, compared to the stadium-scale sound the band packs these days.
Grand anthems are impressive, but the show’s best moments came from what Modest Mouse do best: quiet, slow-moving songs like “Blame It on the Tetons” and the show’s highlight, “Talking Shit About a Pretty Sunset.”
Brock’s voice does well with aggressive, punchy enunciations over brash, uptempo songs, but it works even better on songs that aren’t so busy, where there’s more space for his warbling melodies. He’s never had what one might consider a conventional singing voice, making him a perfect fit for lead singer of an indie rock band. Also, Brock has a lisp, and his voice is unsteady in a way that’s affecting when paired against guitars dipping into minor chords. Listen to the subtle, off-key hops it makes when, in the recorded version of “Talking Shit,” he sings, “Looking kind of anxious in your cross-armed stance / Like a bad-tempered prom queen at a homecoming dance.”
In a live setting, Brock’s voice is always hitting surprising notes, which is to say he sometimes hits a “wrong” note. This works to his advantage, since the warped tunefulness is what lends his voice its unique melancholy. During their performance of “Talking Shit,” they pared down all the fuzz and clutter, leaving plenty of room for Brock’s vocals and sad guitar melody.
“Thank y’all very much,” Brock said after the band played three encore songs. “You have a good night.”
The stage lights cut out and they walked offstage, leaving the crowd standing rapt under imitation starlight and listening to recorded sounds of heavy rainfall playing from the venue’s speakers. Some people left, but most stayed, cheering for an empty stage until the overhead lights switched on.
// Kyle Cochrun is a writer from Akron, Ohio and is currently enrolled in the NEOMFA program for creative writing.