Modest Mouse

We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank

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(Epic)

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Alienation is nothing new for Isaac Brock. Modest Mouse have made a steady racket out of the singer's isolation and misanthropy. But the band's breakout success, Good News for People Who Love Bad News, was a relatively friendly pop record, and longtime fans must have wondered if it represented a new course for the band or merely a momentary deviation.

We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank answers with Brock and crew sounding downright hostile on the klang klang klang-ing opener "March into the Sea." It's at least partially a bluff, as the song repeatedly dissolves into a gently cracked lullaby, but it's also a sign that Modest Mouse have returned to darker, more familiar territories.

Musically, We Were Dead contains much the same beauty and dirt that the band perfected on that breakout record, only in a different ratio. Tinkling xylophones, airy synth pads, and shiny brass all appear, but they don't subdue Brock's ragged howls and discordant guitar as they once did.

Much has been made of legendary Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr's joining the band (less so of new sidemen Tom Peloso and Joe Plummer), but his guitar work doesn't drastically stand out against Modest Mouse's well-established sound. A more immediately recognizable contribution comes from the Shins' James Mercer, whose agile harmonies appear on the soaring but failed escape fantasy of "Florida," the weary conversation of "Missed the Boat," and the defeatist stomp of "We've Got Everything."

Failure, or more accurately futility, is an unsurprising lyrical theme throughout, with Good News's delicately floated optimism replaced by deflated dread. Even the weakly upbeat single "Dashboard" can only manage the sentiment, "It could've been/should've been worse than you would ever know."

Rather than an easy retread of their last record's graceful balance, We Were Dead is stubbornly off-kilter, occasionally difficult, and frequently rewarding—in other words, a classic Modest Mouse record. ERIC GRANDY

Blonde Redhead

23

(4AD)

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Since their astonishingly beautiful 2000 album, Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons, and continuing with 2004's Misery Is a Butterfly, Blonde Redhead have taken a path of increasing critical and commercial standing and of concerted self-refinement. Their third album of this decade, 23, finds them further crystallizing their highly personal, highly dramatic baroque pop. While Melody reflected a love of latter-era Beatles and a classical-music-like clarity, and Misery delved full bore into their longstanding Serge Gainsbourg influences, with 23 Blonde Redhead are more aligned with the zeitgeist than ever before. Songs like the opening title track throb with a dark, postanthemic pomp not unlike the music of present art-pop heroes Arcade Fire and TV on the Radio, and the sonic sensibilities of the record embrace the modern and synthetic more consistently than any of their past work. Although the ornate string arrangements of Misery are gone, and 23 finds BR dealing primarily again with traditional rock-band instrumentation, there is still a bevy of initially jarring but ultimately enriching production turns. "Dr. Strangelove" contains borderline-slapstick vibra-slap and cowbell, while "SW" features a Sgt. Pepper–esque bridge of parading faux brass. Perhaps best of all is the lightly dazzling "Heroine" with vocoder-doubled Kazu Makino lilting through a mist of Kate Bush keyboards and murky bossa nova. Through it all, their music retains the emotional gravity's rainbow and angelic musical architecture Blonde Redhead have grown so adept at. SAM MICKENS

Devin the Dude

Waitin' to Inhale

(Rap-A-Lot)

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It amazes me to no end that in the year 2007, there's still a gang of people who are not up on rap's Johnny "Guitar" Watson, the inimitable Devin Copeland. While sticking to his tried 'n' trues—weed, women, and wine—the Dude only gets better with time. Oh, he's still crass, horny, and high as giraffe coochie; age has just mellowed our hero a touch, making the bluesy undercurrent that has typified his music since 1998's The Dude all the more prominent. Devin, humble as ever, seems amazed at his unquestionable status as an H-Town rap institution, especially since mainstream success has always eluded him. "Oh, what a job this is," Devin moans, as Snoop and Andre 3000 join in on the behind-the-scenes lament "What a Job." With its leaner, jazzier production and (somewhat) mature themes, Inhale is perhaps Devin's most "adult" work—and not in the sense of his typical Blowfly-inspired pussyhound capers. While he's always laced his explicit product with sly pearls of wisdom and subtle moralism, on songs like the teen-runaway requiem "Lil' Girl Gone" it's clear that Copeland takes his role seriously. Inhale may not be his best, not even his second best (that would be his debut and To tha X-treme, respectively), but it's still as essential and consistent as anything he's ever done. When it comes to the Dude, anything is plenty, mang. LARRY MIZELL JR.

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