Modest Mouse — Electric Ballroom (16/12/09)

The last time I saw Modest Mouse performing live, it was May 2007 – they were raising the roof of the Royal Albert Hall while Liverpool were busy losing in the Champions League final. Since then, a lot has changed. Johnny Marr has taken time out of the band to work with The Cribs; Liverpool are no longer even competing in the Champions League. And this time round, Modest Mouse have swapped the hallowed hall imbued with the spirit of Hendrix for the sardine-packed club atmosphere of Camden’s Electric Ballroom. Their numerous instruments and bandmembers shoehorned onto a stage barely bigger than my bedroom, the band look and sound like a troupe of consummate professionals, ostensibly touring in support of an EP, but in reality taking to the stage out of love for their devoted followers, and love of taking their rural groove out on the road.

Marr’s absence is missed, just. His replacement, Jim Fairchild, cut his teeth in Grandaddy, and there’s no doubt he’s competent enough, but come on, he didn’t spend the 80s writing songs for The Smiths. Luckily, in frontman Isaac Brock, Modest Mouse still have at least one outlandishly talented noisemaker, equally at home screaming into his pickups as he is coaxing crazed feedback from guitars and banjos. The rest of the line-up, meanwhile, is as stable ever – in particular, the twin drum-kit set-up has developed into a ferocious, loose-limbed beast, doing full justice to Jeremiah Green’s intricate studio rhythms.

As predicted, the setlist reflects the recent change in personnel and the band’s record label commitments, with much material ploughed from the No One’s First And You’re Next EP and the last pre-Marr album, Good News For People Who Like Bad News. The older material suits the band well, giving them the chance to rock out in a less nuanced fashion than Marr’s guitar work permitted. Of the new songs, it is the Heath Ledger-related “King Rat” that impresses the most, unfurling from Tom Peloso’s trumpet blares. The EP’s lead single, “Satellite Skin”, is a far tamer invention, part “Float On”, part relative boredom. They should get back to what they do best, as evidenced by the stunning “The Whale Song”, sadly absent from last night’s performance.

On record, Modest Mouse have reaped the benefits of pruning down their more meandering grooves – whereas on The Lonesome Crowded West, five tracks crossed the 6-minute mark on the back of an endless motorik beat, of late they have learnt the virtues of economy in the CD age. By contrast, live, the band really let go, turning ordinarily concise pop songs like “Tiny Cities Made Of Ashes” into the monstrous epics they always threatened to be. And that’s okay, in this setting, because it’s in a club or theatre that we can really appreciate the wonderful musicianship that goes into creating such a behemoth. Distended to at least ten minutes, the song culminated with a ritual bout of Brock screaming into his guitar while the rest of the band played out a stunning tattoo. It was just as thrilling as the first time I witnessed it.

On a tangential note, I’m still intrigued as to how Brock achieves his trademark pitch-warp guitar effect, which combines extreme pitch-shift, sudden de-tuning and a curious kind of harmonic. Needless to say, this technical aside in no way spoiled my enjoyment of this brilliant performance by a band who have taken their seat at the head of the alternative rock table. Devoid of Johnny Marr, they are certainly a little more brutal and less beautiful, but no one can really deny them their strange, sea-faring, trailer-trash-baiting party.

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