Welcome to the latest edition of ‘Golden Vault’, where we delve into the annals of music to bring you a classic album. You’ll know some like the back of your hand and nothing of others. We hope to get you reacquainted with old friends and create new favourites. The album to be taken out of the Golden Vault for reappraisal this week is ‘Lonesome Crowded West’ by Modest Mouse.
Post-grunge Seattle was a strange place to be in the mid-Nineties. Kurt Cobain and Nirvana had been and gone in a flash of glory and the urban sprawl and commercialisation of the Northwest was in full swing. The outsiders, the weird kids and the loners were looking for their new Cobain amidst the hotbed of alternative rock bands flooding the area, so step forward Isaac Brock and Modest Mouse to take the mantle.
By 1997 the band had already released an absolute gem of an album in the form of ‘This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About’ and were generating a lot of attention and acclaim for their explosive live shows. ‘Lonesome Crowded West’ was the next step in the great road trip series that constitutes the band’s first three albums, and remains to this day one of the best things to ever emerge from the American Northwest.
The album bursts into a frenzy of fast-paced action in the form of the manic Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine, which evolves from one quirky riff to the next, slowing and quietening down occasionally with Brock’s yelps jumping out at you constantly. As the song races towards its frantic climax, the quality of the rhythm section can be truly appreciated, remaining as a comforting and stable presence in contrast to the wildness of Brock’s guitar playing. The rest of the album follows a similar pattern, jumping from moments of peace and calm such as the relaxed Heart Cooks Brain to patches of uncontrollable energy and wildness, like the berserk chorus of Convenient Parking.
The songs peak in the middle section of the album. Doin’ The Cockroach steadily grows in speed and intensity from its standing start, with the outro being led by a freakishly dancey drum beat while unhinged guitar playing layered in harmonics and distortion burns with a ferocious intensity. Cowboy Dan explores the themes of urbanisation and isolation with its poignant lyrics and powerful dynamic changes. Brock paints a picture so vivid you feel as angry as the drunken, confused cowboy screaming his frustration at God.
Road trips and driving feature heavily on the record too; the rambling Truckers’ Atlas captures the essence of long-distance driving in its long outro which revolves around a rumbling beat and seems to last forever. Bankrupt On Selling is an acoustic tune, very different from the rest of the album, yet Brock’s whining tones tug at your heart-strings, even if it is in a rather unorthodox fashion. As vocalists go, you’d be hard-pressed to find a stranger voice than Brock’s.
‘Lonesome Crowded West’ is an album that takes its listeners on a journey through empty parking lots, crowded malls, cowboy reservations, trailer parks and the never-ending expanse that is the American mid-west. It’s desolate and lonely, yet at the same time intimate and suffocating. It’s the seperate distinctive parts that make Modest Mouse such a convincing whole – the wandering melodic basslines that meander beneath every guitar riff, the ferocious drumming that contributes as much to the songs as any chord, the frenzied guitar playing that frequently spirals out of control, and finally the freakish growl that emits those wonderful, bewildering and insightful lyrics. On the surface ‘Lonesome Crowed West’ may sound rough, brittle and heavy, but there’s an inner beauty to Modest Mouse that shines through like headlights on a lonely, barren, dark road.