Back in 1997 Modest Mouse were a small, largely unknown band. Some may even say they had modest popularity. By this stage in their career they had released two well-received albums, and seemed on the brink of something special. For many Indie-Rock fans ‘The Lonesome Crowded West’ was that special something. It didn’t propel them into mainstream consciousness as many bands’ breakthrough albums do; but it saw the beginning of a cult following for the band. To this day, they are still something of a cult band: they are never the band of the moment, as it were, yet they still have a fairy large, appreciative fan base. This album is now seen as one of the landmark releases of the 90’s, particularly within the Indie genre.
However, TLCW is not actually good as its reputation might suggest. Its quirky nature makes it a very interesting listen when compared to more pedestrian modern indie bands. Released while still on an independent label, the recording of the album is raw, and this rawness adds to the craziness found in tracks such as ‘Lounge (Closing Time)’, which varies from fast, choppy guitar riffs to laid-back, jazzy basslines while vocalist Isaac Brocks’ schizophrenic vocal delivery is both energetic and gentle. Structurally, it is all over the place, which is not necessarily a bad thing as the unexpected is interesting, but also, it lacks direction. Many of the longer songs on the album, of which ‘Lounge (Closing Time)’ is one, are structurally, either great or poor depending on how you look at it. While the fact that they deviate from convention is admirable, the themes that are running throughout such songs are often too loose to keep the song from sounding like a sprawling mess. The worst offender of all is the near 11-minute ‘epic’ ‘Truckers Atlas’ which is simply too long for its own good. The first few minutes are brilliant, with some interesting drum parts and great lyrics; but repetition soon sets in and virtually nothing happens for the final five minutes of the track.
When Modest Mouse keep the songs shorter and sweeter though, the results are far more satisfying. The sorrowful ‘Trailer Trash’ is still fairly long, approaching the six-minute mark but is structured much better with interesting motifs running throughout. Brock’s vocals are toned down here, and makes his lisping apologies seem all the more innocent and heartfelt. Better yet is the unapologetically folksy rambling of ‘Jesus Christ Was An Only Child’ complete with accompanying fiddle solos. The lyrics are excellent too and blasphemously call Jesus a “***er” that his dad should have “killed”. Such lyrics that are surely more suited to some satanic black-metal band sound strangely intriguing when given the campfire-folk treatment. The religious overtones of ‘Jesus Christ…’ are carried over into the first verse of ‘Doin’ the Cockroach’ which progresses nicely from a gentle indie song lamenting Brock’s fear of religion into an upbeat rocker. The folk influences are also carried over into ‘Doin’ the Cockroach’ as the latter half of it certainly has a barn dance element to it.
Supposedly ‘epic’ and folk-influenced alt-rock songs aside the album is still far from your standard indie album. It’s just not done that well a lot of the time. ‘Out Of Gas’ is completely unremarkable, using very few interesting ideas and is ultimately forgettable. The same can be said for ‘Long Distance Drunk’ which features bland instrumentation and even more uninspired lyrics – “Hang it up now or never, long distance drunk” basically repeated over and over. While these two tracks are likely to send the listener to sleep, following track ‘*** Luck’ is most definitely intended to wake them up immediately as Brock yells “This building is totally burning down!” abruptly in between throwaway thrashy jam sessions. It is refreshing to know that the band most probably view the song as filler, but though it may be filler, it is still one of the most fun songs on the album.
‘The Lonesome Crowded West’ is arguably a very overrated album. It is easy to see what Modest Mouse’s most loyal fans see in it, as it is very unique, and often enjoyable. However, more often than not it over complicates things too much and the songs have little effect. Nearly half of the songs here are over 5 minutes long, and the vast majority of these could easily be reduced in length, as they are unnecessarily lengthy. Wild unpredictability both plagues and compliments songs here, as sometimes it can make them lack any direction whatsoever; while in other songs the unexpected is very satisfying. Overall, TLCW is so close and yet so far from being a great album. Motifs used in songs would work so much better were they better collected, yet there are enough interesting ones to make this a good album – just not great.