Modest Mouse

"We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank" (Epic) - 4 stars

The kids aren’t alright. It’s a point many jaded indie rockers are making today, and no one does it better than Isaac Brock. He’s been leading Modest Mouse and damaged American youth on a path through a broken landscape of isolation, alienation, and despair since 1996’s “This is a Long Drive for Someone With Nothing to Think About,” and the road continues through their latest outing, “We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank.”

But as the cast of lost souls grows larger with each subsequent release, Brock’s pained yelp has become a triumphant battle cry for the legions of kids willing to dance and drink their sorrows away.

Modest Mouse has been swept into the mainstream, almost jumping the shark with 2004’s surprise hit “Float On,” which fueled a mini-van commercial and a Kidz Bop video. Comfortably signed to a major label, Brock is using his new and improved firepower to pack already unstable songs to the brim with a cacophony of boisterous horns, disco bass lines, and supercharged snare hits.

If 2004’s “Good News for People Who Love Bad News” proved anything, it was that Brock had enough genius to turn a shambling mess into a successful pop album. The lonely twang of early Modest Mouse songs may have been traded in for a gigantic layer of schmaltz and glittery hooks, but the band’s even more fatalistic than ever.

Brock has described the album as a “nautical balalaika carnival romp,” which gives some insight into the controlled chaos that dominates each song. This album doesn’t necessarily break new ground, but it pushes old ideas to the brink. “Float On” gets outshone and blown away by the full-on dance single that is “Dashboard.” Which makes sense: if it worked well before, it’ll work better louder, longer, and faster.

For the most part, Brock is right on target. His once-alienated snarl now drips with charisma, accompanied by the kind of thunderous, propulsive drumming that bullies wallflowers into action.

The entire endeavor seems to be on the verge of losing control even with Johnny Marr’s coolheaded guitar-playing; the veteran Smiths guitarist may have been around the block once or twice, but this is still very much Brock’s party. Even when inevitable future singles like “Florida” and “Fly Trapped in a Jar” settle into a groove, Brock keeps chomping at the bit, pushing the entire thing full speed ahead in his own game of musical brinksmanship.

It’s only when the reins are let go a little bit and the songs are allowed to spiral in on each other that the album really hits its stride.

“Parting of the Sensory” only hints at what’s in store as it transitions from cacophonous dirge to handclapping barnburner. More than forty minutes into the album, “Spitting Venom” comes crawling out of the gate with a restrained Brock and a twang of Modest Mouse past before jumping headlong into more seemingly standard dance fare. Three minutes in, however, there’s no sign of letting up, just a quick breather before Brock begins cautioning “Let it all drop / Oh let it all fall off.”

By this point, the drums have dropped out only to be replaced by resolute horns and an organ that begins the slow, determined build to an exuberantly raucous eight minute mark. In the face of utter collapse, the song keeps its cool and gives the ever-growing horde yet another song to sing.