This week’s reviews: Modest Mouse and Jessica Lea Mayfield & Scott Avett

Strangers to Ourselves (Epic) is Modest Mouse’s first album since 2007’s We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank.  In that 8 years, so much in the music landscape has changed.

Strangers to Ourselves sounds like a vintage Modest Mouse album in the same way 2014’s They Want My Soul sounded like a vintage Spoon album. Both bands have signature sounds and their latest albums stay loyal to the sound that made them a fan favorite.  There is something so comforting about a band that comes back after all that time and still gets it done.

On Strangers to Ourselves, Isaac Brock displays the same level of caustic-wit as on previous albums like The Lonesome Crowded West (1997), The Moon & Antarctica (2000), and Good News for People Who Love Bad News (2004). There are some radio friendly songs. There are some strange and experimental tracks. Brock is never afraid to curse or mix it up.

The album starts with the title track, “Strangers to Ourselves,” a slow song that features steady drums and a steady Brock on vocals. He mentions themes of luck, regrets, and confusion. It is like he is easing the wary fan into the album.

“Lampshades on Fire,” the album’s lead single, is a funky song that whips into action as the albums’ second track.  It starts with a jaunty “buh, buh, buh-duh-dah“s and seems to tell the story of destruction and mistakes. It is light and serious at the same time.

“Ansel” is a stand-out song. It goes back and forth between a level-headed story and frantic disarray.  The guitar melody and other instrumentation frames these feelings quite well.  “The Ground Walks, with Time in a Box” has a quick guitar melody and a steady drum beat (like in “Dashboard,” a classic track from We Were Dead…). There are background vocals as well, which contribute to the inclusive nature of Modest Mouse.

“Shit in Your Cut, “Pistol (A. Cunanan, Miami, FL. 1996)” and “Be Brave” are three sort of strange tracks, much like “Shit Luck” from The Moon & Antarctica. It is nice to see that Modest Mouse is still taking chances with structure, vocal style, and instrumentation.

Strangers to Ourselves is gratifying. While it may not be a new sound, it is just nice to have another Modest Mouse album to enjoy.

Recommended Tracks: “The Ground Walks, with Time in a Box,” “Ansel”

Also out this week is Scott Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith. Avett and Mayfield discovered their mutual love for Smith’s music and decided to take it to the studio. It is not a straight-forward album of covers. With two unique talents like Avett and Mayfield, a straight forward interpretation would be impossible. Instead, the album features re-imagined versions of Smith’s most classic songs.  Arrangements capture the exact moment when you discover a stranger or friend shares your admiration of a musician. In this case, it’s Elliott Smith.

“Roman Candle” is almost unrecognizable. It is arranged as a  90’s alt-rock, guitar-driven powerhouse with Mayfield at the forefront. It sounds weird but it works.  Her voice sort of operates as part of a “quiet/loud/quiet” formula.

“Somebody That I Used to Know,” a personal favorite Smith song of mine, sounds very much like an Avett Brothers song with Avett on lead vocals. On “Fond Farewell,” Mayfield takes the lead and transforms the song into an breezy exclamation of sorrow.  Avett provides support with background vocals.

If you are a fan of Elliott Smith’s music, this album is definitely worth checking out. It is re-imagined without straying too far from what Smith was all about: sadness, introspection, and hope (sometimes).

Recommended Tracks: “Fond Farewell” and “Roman Candle”


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