Trying to fit Modest Mouse and The Smiths on the same mix-tape is a bit of a bitch. It's not impossible, but they're very different bands that need a very clever bridge. Going straight from the frenzied, frenetic tomfoolery of Modest Mouse to the crooning of Morrissey doesn't work well (we suggest The Cure's "Jumping Someone Else's Train"to transition from Mouse's new single "Dashboard"and The Smiths' "Sweet and Tender Hooligan,"or Built to Spill's "Big Dipper"to link "Float On"and "Ask").
So it was pretty damn bizarre to find out last year that 43-year-old former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr had become a member of 31-year-old Isaac Brock's band during the recording of Mouse's fifth album, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank.
The infamously hard-living and acerbic Brock had pushed Modest Mouse to platinum stardom with 2004's Good News for People Who Love Bad News without making a mockery of what made the band's incendiary, stridently underground rock so great. As for Marr, it's not like he hasn't played in some odd bands-following The Smiths' breakup, he tooled around with The The and an early '90s synth-pop project called Electronic.
Still, Morrissey and Rob Zombie seemed like more appropriate bandmates than Brock and Marr.
Then Mouse released We Were Dead last month, and suddenly Brock was hailed as a visionary for drafting Marr out of semi-retirement. The two sound great together, even if Brock can't explain why.
"It's hard to see exactly what he or any of the musicians bring to a song,"says Brock between loads of laundry and some light gardening at his Portland, Ore., home. "I never sat back and said, "Wow! Look what Johnny is doing to this song!'"
Brock always loved Marr's playing but didn't feel the need for a Smiths cram session before he and Marr got together for the 10-day trial session that yielded a first draft of "Dashboard."
Instead, he spent the months before writing We Were Dead loving the last Kings of Leon record and absorbing some Spanish beats.
"On a trip to Spain, I noticed this flamenco thing with shouting and stomping and thought, I've just gotta have me some fuckin' stomping and clapping music,"he says. "Johnny understood how to fit in to that.... Johnny, Eric [Judy] and I all play guitar on "Parting of the Sensory,' but Johnny's part doesn't come in until the last round before the stomping and clapping thing. And it's perfect. It's this giant, stormy grrrr. And that was the right thing to do."
Of course, most people assume that the song is all Johnny. In fact, most people assume that Judy and Brock didn't even bother to plug in for this record.
"Johnny added a lot to the band, and I'm not taking that away from him,"says Brock. "But Johnny gets a lot of credit for the guitar parts that Eric and I play, and it's frustrating. I understand why he gets the credit, because he's fucking great. But I'm not in danger of getting credit for parts that he wrote. It's kind of been assumed that all the guitar on the record is Johnny. I guess that's OK, that's fine-we know what we did."
Live shows are a different story. Everyone's contributions are in plain, glorious sight.
Acting as a counterpoint to Brock's jerky, echo-laden leads, Marr lays down sublimely smooth-yet-syncopated tempos. Apologies to R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, but Marr's rhythm playing is why rock writers excessively use the term "jangle guitar."When the two swap positions, Brock proves his adaptability and Marr proves he was the chief architect for the Brit-pop guitar style used by everyone from The Stone Roses to Oasis and Blur.
At one recent show, after a sinister, epic guitar workout on "Doin' the Cockroach,"Marr crossed the stage and put his arm around his new bandmate.
"I just told Isaac that I think I'm in the right place,"Marr told the crowd.
But Marr needn't have any uncertainty. He's in the best place he's been in two decades. And Brock is a genius to have pulled off putting Marr in that place. Now, let's hope egos don't fuck it up.
Modest Mouse plays with Love as Laughter and CityBeat's biggest crush-Man Man-at Cox Arena on Monday, May 14. Doors open at 7 p.m. $33.75. 619-220-8497.
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