Sound — 9
Modest Mouse was formed a long time ago in a world far away called the '90s, when other bands were forming grunge bands, Modest Mouse carved out their own sound, which has closely been associated with the indie music scene. The band was originally formed with Isaac Brock as lyricist, vocalist, guitars and banjos, Jeremiah Green on drums and Eric Judy on bass and sometimes guitar. The lineup had other members joining and leaving, but the lineup stayed consistently with these three (except for some very brief exceptions) until Eric Judy left the band in 2012. "Strangers to Ourselves" will be the band's sixth full-length studio release, occurring after an 8 year hiatus from recording, with their last album being "We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank" in 2007. "Strangers to Ourselves" contains 15 tracks, with a runtime just a few minutes short of an hour. The lead single from the album was "Lampshades on Fire," which was released in December 2014. Since Eric Judy's departure in 2012, the bass duties have been taken on by Russell Higbee.
The album opens with the title track, "Strangers to Ourselves," with the percussion drumming the song into a build-up for the intro, with strings and keyboard. The guitar comes in with fills and embellishments, and all the instruments begin to layer themselves into a tapestry with some melancholy lyrics to top it off. The lead single, "Lampshades on Fire," is up next - and this song sounds very much like what I expect to hear from Modest Mouse, and for that reason it doesn't stand out on the album, but it does fill it out nicely. "Sh-t in Your Cut" uses some interesting percussion throughout the song to give it a really unique sound, and has a nice recurring melodic theme. The lyrics are where this track really gets interesting, though, seemingly jumping erratically between abstract subjects, "Expulsion from an exoskeleton/ of our mothers we arrive/ soft, sticky, cold we arrive and then start to cry/ all those insects that I sent are trapped/ in my window once again/ empty their pockets out and I'll sort it at the table." Next up is "Pistol (A. Cunanan, Miami, FL 1996)," which is probably the most oddball song on the album, seeming to be parodying pop and hip-hop music. The lyrics are dealing with a rather odd experience that I'm guessing happened in Miami in 1996.
"Ansel" is a narrative about a trip to Mexico, and it utilizes some cool percussion that helps create a mood for the track. "The Ground Walks, With Time in a Box" is another song that sounds more stereotypically like Modest Mouse to my ears, and there is nothing wrong with that. There is a really awesome outro to this track, which is mostly instrumental - beautiful. "Coyotes" opens up with a pretty basic little acoustic riff, some shakers as percussion and vocals, but builds up, adding banjo and other instruments for the chorus. During the quiet parts of the songs you can actually hear paper being ruffled. "Coyotes" has a pretty cool vibe. This song was online pretty early, though it wasn't officially one of the singles for the album. "Pups to Dust" has an almost desert rock vibe in some ways. There is a recurring riff, and some wood block going on in the verses. Plus, you gotta love a song that includes "scrubba scrubba scrubba" in the lyrics. The song goes some pretty interesting places in the relatively short 3 1/2 minutes that it lasts for, and all the ground it covers. "Sugar Boats" has a drunk carnival vibe going on, like something I would expect more readily from Stolen Babies, but it works surprisingly well on the album. The song has some brass instruments going on, as well as a catchy fuzz guitar part. There are some interesting things done with the mixing on the track as well, especially in the second half of the track. "Wicked Campaign" opens up with a lot of electronica elements, but real instruments work their way into the track as it progresses. This track builds up to a crescendo at the end, with some interesting lyrical themes, "So I just learned my face, but I forgot my name/ I'm gonna wear this smile like it's some stupid toupee."
The track "Be Brave" has my favorite bass line from the album, with a lot of the track depending on the groove created by the fairly simple bass line. "God Is an Indian and You're an A-shole" is the only song where the lyrics were not written by Isaac Brock, but by the other founding member, Jeremiah Green. It's a very short song - just a little over 1 minute, and the lyrics are basically repeating the lines "God is an Indian, and you're an a-shole, so get on your horse and ride." "The Tortoise and The Tourist" opens up with a melody made from string-bending, and transitions to a narrative verse that is mostly carried by the bass and percussion. The title of the album is also used in the lyrics, "We are Strangers to Ourselves/ We sneak out/ drip by drop/ through paper cuts on our hands/ day after day/ nothing's quite the same/ we are tourists in our own heads," though oddly enough those lyrics aren't used in the title track on the album. "The Best Room" may very well be my favorite track from the album, because it has a lot of stuff going on instrumentally throughout the song, but it is also very engaging on a lyrical level, addressing some issues with modern society and calling everybody out on it. The album closes out with the track "Of Course We Know," which sounds pretty damn epic for a Modest Mouse song, with a tinge of melancholy. There are some wordless backing vocals provided on this track, where they're just singing melodies and that really makes this song stand out. I enjoyed this album immensely.
Lyrics — 9
Isaac Brock is the primary lyricist and vocalist on the album, with his very own distinctive vocal style which includes a mild lisp and/or slur to his words and very quick changes between higher pitched and lower pitched vocals. Isaac's vocals have always went into sounding manic and spastic to melancholy and everywhere in between - to me, this is what makes Isaac Brock stand out as a vocalist, but I have some "vocalist" friends who all strongly dislike Isaac's vocals and think that he's a poor vocalist - maybe if you're judging him by certain standards, but not in the context of Modest Mouse's music - his vocals are probably my favorite part of the music. Lyrically, he always seems to be somewhere between narrative and abstract, which is a good balance. I rarely get bored with the lyrics of any of Modest Mouse's lyrics, historically, and the tracks on "Strangers to Ourselves" aren't any different. I discussed the lyrics a few times in the "sound" section of the review, so I won't go into specific examples here, but they definitely add a lot of value to the album overall, and in a way that a lot of bands don't.
Overall Impression — 9
I've been a fan of Modest Mouse for a long time, and every time I hear new music from them it has reinforced my opinion. "Strangers to Ourselves" may very well be their best album yet, as it has grown on me more with each listen and has a LOT going on. My favorite track is probably "The Best Room," but I enjoy the album quite a bit from start to finish. Some other standout tracks to me are "Wicked Campaign" and "Pistol." Modest Mouse is potentially the perfect blend of the weird and the conventional, where they take their music and lyrics to some unusual and worthwhile places, but they are still very musically accessible.