The Genius Of… Good News For People Who Love Bad News by Modest Mouse
Reeling in thousands of new listeners via its transcendental lead single, Good News… elevated Modest Mouse from a shadowy, fringe act to the premier league of indie rock.
Modest Mouse. Image: Andy Willsher / Redferns / Getty Images
2003 was not a good year for Isaac Brock. Following a series of devastating personal losses, legal issues after being charged with a DUI, a brief stay in prison and a general increasing of anxiety due to the Bush Administration’s ‘War on Terror’, Modest Mouse’s sage creative principal now faced the departure of the band’s crucial drummer Jeremiah Green. Brock’s frustration with the unrelenting negativity that seemed to dog him at every turn would lead to the making of a record that sought to stare down these numerous crises, took stock of the long road taken by the band up until that point – and aim its sights at a far wider congregation of listeners than ever before.
Released on April 6th 2004, Good News For People Who Love Bad News was a triumphant collision of flavours that raised the band’s commercial stock considerably. Across 16 tracks, Brock balanced epic-sized pleas for certainty (Float On, One Chance) with darker hued, ramshackle dives into agonised swamps of mania (The Devil’s Workday, Bury Me With It). Arranged with nuanced gradations of intricate guitar melodies, inebriated rhythms and macabre jazzy undertones, decked out in the backwoods-folk apparel of banjos, stand-up basses and tin whistles. Modest Mouse’s fourth album was a spirit-lifting listen.
Brock was no stranger to the titular ‘bad news’, and the group had already dealt with their fair share of swerves. The seeds of the band first formed when the 16-year-old Isaac Brock met future bassist Eric Judy and drummer Jeremiah Green while hanging around the grunge-dominated music scene of Seattle in 1993. Brock’s early home life was the definition of impoverished. A meandering childhood of near-constant re-locating between hippie communes, the churches of a hardline Christian sect and eventually, a brief tenancy in the flooded former home of his mother, had instilled in Brock both a precocious wisdom, and a bewitchment with rural Americana – as well as a manic creative energy. This first flowered when the three teens cobbled together the early line-up of Modest Mouse. It was a bookish band-name that doffed its cap to Virginia Woolf, and her depiction of the working class in The Mark on the Wall as “modest mouse-coloured people, who believe genuinely that they dislike to hear their own praises”.
Debut LP This Is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About was released on the Seattle based independent Up Records in 1996. A tight articulation of Brock’s wanderlust, Long Drive… also revealed Modest Mouse’s peculiar musical talents, with Judy and Green’s eccentric off-kilter rhythm section sustaining Brock’s oddball guitar approach, which frequently veered into the discordant. It was a promising, if jittery, opening statement.
After a scattershot spray of EPs, second album proper The Lonesome Crowded West marked the first appearance of guitarist Dann Gallucci. Galllucci, a fellow native of the Pacific Northwest (and lead axe man in The Murder City Devils), had become acquainted with the trio, and was keen to assist with the bolstering of their sound. Though his presence at this stage was merely in the capacity of a guest musician, Gallucci’s twinkling arpeggios and spine-tingling leads on Trailer Trash served as a premonition of a warmer sounding musical universe to come.
By the turn of the 21st century, the band had amassed a fairly gargantuan repertoire, great renown for putting on unpredictable live shows and a swelling underground fanbase. The proudly independent, lo-fi troupe’s word-of-mouth reputation drew the interest of the majors. Signing to the Sony-owned Epic Records in 2000, Brock took pride in their major label debut The Moon & Antarctica, which sought to juggle both their shabby ethos with some cleaner, considered production from Brian Deck. Despite critical plaudits it didn’t quite live up to Epic’s ambitions for the Mouse to dent the mainstream, peaking at #120 on the Billboard chart.
A peak of bad news
After Brock’s aforementioned string of hardships, the writing process for Modest Mouse’s fourth studio album began in 2003. With the rest of the band based in Seattle, and Brock then still living in a town many miles away, a compromise was reached and the three rented a house in Portland as their temporary HQ. Aside from a few fragments, the six month sessions were largely unproductive, and insurmountable tensions with Green (following increasingly bizarre behaviour) resulted in his departure. At an existential crossroads, Brock and Judy hit up Gallucci to come in full-time, and work on crafting a richer sonic universe which foregrounded his melodic guitar approach.
“Things had to reach a peak of bad news.” Brock told The AV Club in 2004, “Everything had to fall apart in order for us to figure out where we stood. So we decided that instead of recording with someone we knew, we were going to go to the opposite side of the country and record with [a producer] we’d never met before.” The man assigned this uphill task was Dennis Herring, based in his Sweet Tea Recording studio in Oxford, Mississippi. Herring was a well-respected rock polymath who’d previously helmed records by Counting Crows and Throwing Muses. For Isaac Brock, working with Herring required a change of studio mindset, “He’d have me play the same part four hours straight and at about the time I was going to kill him and turn myself into the cops – he’d turn round to me the next day and say that he liked it better when I played it the first time round.” a crotchety Brock remarked to Drowned In Sound.
With Herring and Gallucci’s considerable musical clout brought to the table, the gang set about assembling an album that exorcised the demons of a dramatic few years. The album’s delicate opener The World at Large juggled an emotive riff from Gallucci that contrasted an ethereal picking pattern. Soaked in delay, this lush aural universe set the stage for Brock’s rolling delivery of a lyric that announced his intentions to move on from both a place – and a state of mind – that he can’t stand. As the arrangement built out further with the addition of lush mellotron strings, the cinematic scope of the band’s new sonic vision was revealed.
The opening track seamlessly slides into, what would become, the band’s signature song: the mantra-like Float On. Placing a capo on the sixth fret of his Telecaster, Gallucci’s stirring central structure (F♯ – C#/E♯ – Bmaj7 – A♯m7) is flavoured by a kinetic, almost Chic-like funk voicing, while a palm-muted, fuller-toned melody circles in orbit, provided by Brock. On this track, and throughout the record, Brock employs a technique, wherein he bends notes by hammering the bridge manually instead of wobbling a tremolo arm, conjuring ghostly moans that rise eerily from the corners of the mix. His delirious vocal delivery contrasts with that central, angelic guitar part, as the song leads to its central, life-affirming, resolution that, “We’ll all float on ok”.
The two principal guitarists on the record, Brock and Gallucci, maintained a symbiotic dynamic through much of the record. While Gallucci primarily relied on his Fender Telecaster Deluxe running through Fender amps. Brock harnessed a series of custom made Wicks models, with his tremolo specifications added by Callahan Guitars, as well as his trebly Fender JagStang (a model notably designed by Kurt Cobain in 1994)
The album’s home run of instant, first-listen classics continued with Ocean Breathes Salty. Shaped by a stirring wave of double-tracked arpeggios in the key of G, which settle into a dominant motif throughout the song, Brock decries those that cling to the comfort blanket of the afterlife. The bouncy arrangement showcases exemplary work from all parties, but of particular note is Gallucci’s restrained solo, which emphasises the central melody and slides around the chords gracefully.
A central component of the Modest Mouse sound – the thumping rhythm section – remained strong on the record, despite Green’s departure. New drummer (and half of Oregon’s respected duo The Helio Sequence) Benjamin Weikel, stepped into Green’s considerable boots with aplomb. Unphased by the band’s occasional slides into off-kilter mania. This line-up of Modest Mouse’s adaptability was proven by diverse tracks such as the lumbering country-funk of Bury Me With It and the darker-shaded patchwork of harmonium, delay-laden guitar and banjo that frames Brock’s withering ridicule of those that idolise alcoholic poster-boy Charles Bukowski, ahead of the frothing street-preacher rant Satin In A Coffin