Before Modest Mouse burst onto the national scene, the band crafted a Northwest classic in The Lonesome Crowded West

click to enlarge Before Modest Mouse burst onto the national scene, the band crafted a Northwest classic in The Lonesome Crowded West
James Joiner photo
I don't think TLCW era Isaac Brock (right) would be caught golfing. |

It's f—ing lonely out here, man.

People sometimes don't like to talk about the inherent isolation of the Northwest, but that shit's real. I grew up in a city in Montana where the closest "real" cities — Denver and Seattle — were 10- and 12-hour drives. Even intrastate visits to grandparents meant packing in the car for three to five hours. I've lived in Billings, Spokane and Seattle, but perhaps it'd be more accurate to say the western stretch of Interstate 90 is my true home. Just endless hours rolling along through pine tree-strewn nothingness on roads carved into the banks of mountains. There's an undeniable natural beauty to the winding paths, but simultaneously something perverse about it — these man-made pavement paths carving through the tranquility in the name of commerce, convenience and an unquenchable thirst for expansion.

Commuting those stretches of I-90 is second-nature to me after all these years of trekking from one place I called home to another. And more often than not, when I'm traversing terrain there's one album to throw on that captures the spirit of everything about these surroundings.

The Lonesome Crowded West by Modest Mouse.

The creative force behind Modest Mouse — singer-songwriter/guitarist Isaac Brock — knows the terrain I speak of well, being a fellow Montana-native whose family eventually settled down in Issaquah when he was a preteen. The Lonesome Crowded West feels like the bottled-up indie rock release of growing up and growing hyper-cynical in the Northwest. The 1997 album came well before the band became one of the bigger rock bands on the planet with the release of 2004's Good News for People Who Love Bad News, but its distinct point-of-view, abrasive edges and cohesive vision still set it apart as Modest Mouse's masterpiece. The record turns 25 this Friday, and to mark the occasion, Modest Mouse is touring the album as a stripped-back four-piece band (a dream concert I honestly thought would never happen).

From the opening seconds of the album-opening "Teeth Like God's Shoeshine," the cacophonous and chaotic tone is set. Brock plays his guitar with an exasperated ferocity, violently slamming the strings and bending them until the notes wail with an unhinged dissonance, setting a noisy backdrop for his lisp-y hollers to the heavens. But the songs on this record turn on a dime, as Brock quickly gives way to haunting harmonics and lyrical reflections on the sad state of consumerist living, where "the malls are the soon-to-be ghost towns." It borrows a page from the loud-soft-loud formula that Seattle grunge brought to the mainstream, but with even the "soft" parts mostly only being so by comparison.

The Northwest contrasts between grunge and this rabble-rousing early vintage of Modest Mouse indie rock make for interesting comparisons. Obviously both are rooted in punk rock and the general seasonal affective disorder blues that this corner of the country naturally spawns, but there are differences beyond grunge's heaviness. Grunge lyricism tends to wallow in intense feelings — it's "nobody understands me" music. Brock's lyricism on The Lonesome Crowded West is more weighted to a lack of human contact. The swirling guitars on tracks like "Heart Cooks Brain" create a soundscape of moods barely connected to anyone else — it's aimless depressive rantings of the isolated.

These feelings of isolation aren't, however, the result of heartbreak or tragedy. The root cause of what makes the West so crowded and lonesome from Brock's perspective is simple — consumerism.

Even when he's being tongue-in-cheek, mocking the hollow sides of capitalism rotting away the core of his Northwest home ("Let's all have another Orange Julius / thick syrup, standing in lines"), Brock can't hide the snarling, eye-rolling disgust he has for it. For example, the never-ending desire to pave over paradise for a parking lot in the name of car culture's consumer "convenience" gets shredded in "Convenient Parking."

Growing up near Microsoft's tech hub must've worn off on Brock, who prophetically penned the line "Working really hard to make internet cash / fingers to the bone sitting on your ass" to go over the baby wails and strings on the disorienting "Jesus Christ Was an Only Child." The tune "Cowboy Dan" captures the dread and alcoholic ravings when "civilized" expansion shows up unwanted at one's doorstep ("didn't move to the city, the city moved to me / and I want out desperately"); a gasp of air before the world one built is poisoned and dies.

"Bankrupt on Selling" uses a beautiful acoustic facade to muse about even angels being overly concerned with buying and selling and the futility of trying to escape small-town Northwest doldrums because you might still only end up a forgettable "guy who said all those big words he musta learned in college." And when all these complaints are being shouted into an uncaring void, you can feel even lonelier and direct your rage in various directions — be it a sonic temper tantrum noise barrage like "Shit Luck" or giving up, resigning yourself to "trying to drink away the part of the day that I cannot sleep away" ("Polar Opposites").

Even The Lonesome Crowded West's most tender moment — "Trailer Trash" — is colored by the economic world that surrounds it. The song is a rare artifact of honest nostalgia, a fond remembrance of simpler times while acknowledging things back then were far from perfect. Over loose, scratchy chords Brock empathetically sings about trailer park living and the anxieties that can be entwined in that, while warmly and heart-wrenchingly recalling touching tiny moments like eating snowflakes with plastic forks. He may "shout that you're all fakes" and genuinely mean it, but he's not so obtuse to not acknowledge that it's tough out there for everyone, so he's also "sorry if I dissed you."

Somewhat ironically, the one seeming respite from the crumbling consumerist world is those sonic and literal open roads — pathways to commerce and the only escape from it. From the faded mutterings of someone you might find having one-too-many at the roadside bar ("Long Distance Drunk") to the sprawling zone-out on a road trip journey of the 11-minute "Truckers Atlas," Brock finds it easier to escape his problems at least momentarily by watching the mile markers whiz by. The Lonesome Crowded West encourages that sad sack wanderlust mindset with a one hour and 14 minutes runtime. Typically, that would seem wildly indulgent for a raw indie rock album, but in this case it accurately sets the proper cruise control speed.

The album isn't a full-on dour fest either. While it's not gonna let up with super melodic pop breaks, it's hard not to have fun with a song like "Doin' the Cockroach," where the best intro riff Brock has ever written gives way to what can best be described as a boogie-down hosted by a wide-eyed maniacal rock preacher. The final track, "Styrofoam Boots," also becomes a coy afterlife jam, questioning heaven's structures before going all out for a drum-driven deep groove outro (kudos to Modest Mouse drummer Jeremiah Green and former bassist Eric Judy).

Brock isn't merely aimlessly shrieking his way through The Lonesome Crowded West — there's a much more nuanced feel to his lyrical delivery. It's lashing out. But more specifically, it's the type of extra angry lashing when you know you're screaming about something you know is f—ed but can't do anything to change. If The Communist Manifesto isn't gonna make a significant dent in American capitalism, Brock isn't under the illusion that an indie rock record from a tiny band in Issaquah is going to ignite some kind of revolution. But even if that's the case, there's value in having this album as a sort of communal airing of grievances, an expression of collective pent-up frustrations about this reality. At the very least, it's nice to listen and know you're not alone in having these thoughts.

The Northwest is a beautiful place. The Northwest is an ugly place. Those truths exist in messy harmony. And nothing captures that quite like The Lonesome Crowded West. ♦

Modest Mouse: The Lonesome Crowded West 25th Anniversary Tour • Sat, Nov. 19 at 8 pm • Sold out • All ages • Knitting Factory • 919 W. Sprague Ave. •

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Seth Sommerfeld

Seth Sommerfeld is the Music Editor for The Inlander, and an alumnus of Gonzaga University and Syracuse University. He has written for The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, Fox Sports, SPIN, Collider, and many other outlets. He also hosts the podcast, Everyone is Wrong...