Crate-Digging: Modest Mouse – Baron Von Bullshit Rides Again

I have a completely-filled 120 GB iPod classic, the record crate of the digital age, containing my entire music library. I’m listening to each release in alphabetical order by record title – kind of a virtual archaeological dig. These are my findings.

(Epic, 2004)

Can you say “cash grab”? I don’t begrudge Modest Mouse for trying to make a little extra money, and I’ve seen them live three times, each time super-wicked-awesome. But on the eve of releasing their second album for Epic Records, Good News for People Who Love Bad News, somebody – whether band or label – decided that it would be a good idea to sate fans with this, a live album, sold exclusively through the band’s website. Here’s the carrot: it would feature one song from the as-yet-unreleased Good News, giving the ultra-devoted a little something to hoard over their friends for a couple months.

Here’s the thing – as bands age, they get less interesting, less hungry, in a live setting. It’s no less true for Modest Mouse, although they have a reputation as incendiery performers. But this release smacks a little insincere, especially when there are infinitely better bootlegs of Modest Mouse shows available at the low, low price of nothing at all.

(Note: I’m all about bands gettin’ real paid. But bootleg shows are an integral part of the industry, often adding to the mystique of your favorite band. Who knows, there may be a song or two that you’ll find on a specific bootleg and nowhere else. How exciting is that? I only take issue at half-assed attempts to earn my hard-earned cash.)

So what’s actually wrong with this? Why should anyone other than a perfectionist quibble with the results? The live show, as much as I bitch about it above, is not that bad. In fact, there are a couple of highlights: “3rd Planet” opens the set on a high note – how could that song not? – and if the cheer as the familiar delayed opening guitar melody plays is any indication, the crowd is primed and ready for action. Live favorites “Neverending Math Equation” and “Broke” fondly recall the band’s formative seven-inch-releasing days, and I guess if I was pressed it still sounds like the band has fun playing them. “I Came as a Rat” is one of my favorite deep cuts, and it sounds good – most of it anyway – in a live setting. “Interstate 8,” another deep catalog choice, lurches and weaves like it did in its heyday, bendy guitar notes inducing carsickness to the unprepared.

But I get so annoyed with other things, even in a couple songs I mention as highlights. “I Came as a Rat” is almost ruined by a lengthy instrumental passage in the middle, a saggy, noxious dip during which singer Isaac Brock mumbles lyrics as if he’s in some sort of trance. The band saves it by kicking back in – hard. (Like a police lieutenant in a seventies cop show.) And is the band tired of playing the older material? It seems the halfhearted attempts at injecting newness fall flat, such as the noodling at beginning of “Broke” where the guitar picking and delay settings fight each other until there’s no discernable rhythm left. “Doin’ the Cockroach,” a live favorite from forever ago, clearly affects Brock’s voice and stamina, as the intensity the song should have wanes by the end. Even the vocals during parts of “Neverending Math Equation” seem delivered in such a restrained way as to save some energy for later on in the set.

*(Grumpy Grandpa shakes cane at record.)*

What else don’t I like? Let me give you a rundown. 

  • Brock, perhaps unsurprisingly given the trucker psychedelia sound Modest Mouse cultivates, takes liberties with grammar that he doesn’t on record, such as on “Bankrupt on Selling” (“All them people you knew were the actors”) and “Paper Thin Walls” (“Laugh hard, it’s a long ways to the bank”). That hillbilly talk don’t fly in the city. (Ha!) 
  • It’s kind of unfair to attack song choice, but with such a deep and awesome catalog, why include “Wild Pack of Family Dogs” at all? A drumkit, even sparingly, used here completely ruins the feel of the song. 
  • Yes, there’s stage banter. Brock goes off on why the band will never play “Free Bird” after some yahoo shouts it. Sigh… how much do I even get into this? First of all, don’t be that guy at the show. You’re an ass. Second, Isaac, buddy, ignore, ignore, ignore – your response is even stupider than that guy.
  • “The Good Times Are Killing Me” as the teaser for Good News? Why? I understand why the band or label wouldn’t include “Float On,” but what about “Black Cadillacs,” “Satin in a Coffin,” or “The View”? As a set closer, I can see it working like a denoument, but as the only song represented from the forthcoming album – the carrot – it’s a poor choice.
  • The title is Baron Von Bullshit Rides Again. The less said about that, the better.

So should you drop the ten bucks on this? Hell no. If you simply must have every official release, try to find it for less than retail. Otherwise, bootlegs from 1997/1998 should be where you look for the ideal Modest Mouse live experience. They’re too good a band and too fiery a live act from which to expect anything other than greatness.

RIYL: Built to Spill, Cap’n Jazz, Love as Laughter


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