Friday, July 03, 2009

#12 Album of the Decade- The Moon & Antarctica

#12- Modest Mouse- The Moon & Antarctica (2000)

My dad can't stand boxing. He sees no art in such a barbaric pastime and, in fact, assumes that any boxing fan is a violent fetishist. Conversely, my brother has little interest in the sweet science, but only because he doesn't find it violent enough. He prefers ultimate fighting, which seems to guarantee the bursts of decisive physical domination that boxing no longer does. The technique of boxing is lost on him.

I like boxing. Not only because I appreciate its historical legacy, but because it seems like a logical bridge between those two extreme points of view. It threatens horrific violence but exists in an environment controlled enough to prevent it. For anyone who has seen the way a real fight explodes into chaos, the tacit agreements made between two boxers are downright civilized. Boxing could easily devolve into anarchy, but it never does because of the rules the two men observe, even when engaged in a primeval element of confrontation. The beauty of boxing comes not from the ubiquity of its violence, but from the relative absence of it--from how concentrated the violence that occurs actually is.  The patience, agility, and--especially--endurance required of a boxer seem to contradict the barbarism my father resents. Not wanting to see people get punched in the face is understandable, but it's safe to say that anyone who simplifies the sport the way he does just doesn't know enough about it.

When a song from Modest Mouse's third full-length appeared on my Pandora streaming radio station way back when, the service's reasons for recommending it to me were: "a) You like soaring choruses, b) you like guitars in minor chord progressions, and c) you like quirky lyrics," whatever that means. That's all accurate, but it could have just as easily said: "You like boxing." Modest Mouse, a trio at the time, specialize in music that sounds raucous yet delicate. It's polished--especially on this album thanks to new producer Brian Deck--but, even during something like the gorgeous solo on "Tiny Cities Made of Ashes," there's always a threat that the music will go completely off the rails. They remind me of The Libertines or Guns 'N Roses in that their collective volatility is so palpable that it becomes part of the musical style.

I attribute most of that danger to Isaac Brock's inimitable voice, in both the literal and figurative sense. His songwriting has always had a unique perspective, but it wasn't until this second movement of the band's career that he went from telling hungover salty dog tales to a more earnest, albeit pessimistic, introspection. Especially on "3rd Planet" and its sort-of reprise "The Stars Are Projectors," he communicates in the most un-pretentious and brooding way how small he feels in the universe. That's a lot of growth, but it's expressed with the most adolescent howl you'll find anywhere. That side-of-the-mouth vocal is able to punch through the angular, tight music and add an elastic immediacy. Again, it's like boxing: inward and outward, absorb and release, bottle up and explode. Even if you hate his voice, you have to admit that no one else in rock sounds like Isaac Brock.

While Modest Mouse conveys edge and exuberance to me, they're also impressively consistent on this record. Unlike their later efforts, there is not a weak song on the whole album. There is no "Dancehall" to skip past. This is the sound of a band finding its limits and walking as close to that line as they can. They shoot for the titular moon and get pretty close. They float like a moth and sting like a wasp. Whatever that means.