"Life is Still Sweet" is tattooed on Isaac Brock's shoulder, but it is there more in hope than expectation. Modest Mouse's stocky, muscular singer-songwriter grew up dirt-poor in the American North-west, not far off, in place and time, from Kurt Cobain. He spent parts of his youth in a neighbour's basement, others in the shed next to his mum's trailer, there being no money or space for him to live anywhere closer to her.
If that wasn't reason enough to be alienated, the making of Modest Mouse's fourth album, Good News for People Who Love Bad News, was accompanied by the deaths of two young friends and the nervous breakdown of the band's drummer. The mortality-obsessed lyrics reveal some of Brock's desperate bad luck. The bouncy, neo-psychedelic music, though, made with the help of friends The Flaming Lips, tell a different story. The single "Float On", especially, helped the band to garner more than half-a-million sales, success beyond Brock's wildest dreams.
The fervent crowd here tonight show that the cult of this still largely anonymous man has reached Britain. But most are also aware of Modest Mouse's new, apparently permanent guitarist: Johnny Marr, formerly of The Smiths.
Marr has been drifting for most of the 20 years since that band split, alighting for a while on bands including The The and Electronic, and most recently becoming frontman for The Healers, without ever suggesting he would match the melancholy, melodic intensity with which he began his career. It isn't clear yet how much input he will have with his latest miserable bandmate. But the byplay between Marr and Brock is tonight's most fascinating element.
Marr stands at the front of one side of the stage, legs braced, with Brock taking the other. Tightly swaddled in a dark coat, Marr looks every inch the Eighties Mancunian. On "Fire It Up", he peels out recognisably Byrdsy notes in slow motion. Then, during a brief pause in "Float On", he throws his arms and body back, waving for cheers, and drops to the mic to take the lead vocal on Modest Mouse's biggest hit. He looks youthful and restless, eager to stretch out on stage, searching for action wherever he can get it. But compared to The Smiths, all his innate showmanship still leaves him a very small cog in Brock's band.
In truth, every guitar note Marr plays is mirrored by Brock, till it's hard to know where one man begins and the other ends. This is symptomatic of Modest Mouse tonight, a far more aggressive, dark proposition live than their albums suggest. They are a post-grunge band drawing on a wide palette of Eighties British influences, making Marr's presence deeply appropriate. Their rhythm is tight and constricted, despite two drummers who don't quite play in unison, and their overall sound is thick and busy.
"The Cockroach" sees urgently chopped guitars drive the seven band members into a mesmeric, pulsing, complex state that makes the crowd mosh excitedly, till the song sinks into a final spidery riff. The Tom Waits-style junkyard hoedown of "Bukoswki", with Brock on banjo, and the Bunnymen-like dolour of "Missed the Boat", show what else they can do.
During it all, Brock looks muscularly intense, barking like the Pixies' Black Francis. But the dreamy, gentle sentiment of his best songs only penetrates Modest Mouse's live fury once, during the wistful "People We Know". For the rest, his North-west noise heritage dominates too much. And, whatever he does, there is another man on his stage who commands all our attention. Marr leaves last, milking his own special cheer from the young crowd. Whatever Brock's troubles, it is the itinerant one-time Smith who seems most urgently in need of a home where he can express himself. Whether Modest Mouse will be it seems somehow doubtful.Reuse content