I DRIVE AN '85 Chrysler New Yorker, and I am from New York. I was talking to a friend, a native Seattleite, when I mentioned my concern that my clunky old car might not pass an annual safety inspection after another year. My friend said, "Pass what?"

"Pass inspection."

"You let someone inspect your car?!"

That was how I learned that there's no yearly state vehicle inspection in Washington. But more surprising than hands-off government was my friend's incredulity that New York residents allow the government to judge their cars. It was an expression of a distinctly West Coast ethos. I felt very far from home.

I've never written about Modest Mouse, but they're one of the reasons I was interested in working for The Stranger and moving to Seattle. The sprawling guitars and ciphered verses of The Lonesome Crowded West presented to my New Yorker sensibilities the most obliquely romantic vision of American Western-ness I'd ever heard in music. The songs implied depressed spaciousness or compressed frustration, and I remember more than once I would sit and read the lyric sheet while I listened to the album. I became obsessed with its grammatical inconsistencies: On "Cowboy Dan," for example, "your" is repeatedly printed where "you're" is needed. "Every time you think your walking your just moving the ground." I began to believe that it was intentional.

Ultimately I decided that this disregard for grammar was an artless manifestation of pioneer spirit; something that endears the Northwest to me, and something embodied by Modest Mouse.

I became a music-geek missionary, bent on converting New York to the desperate beauty of The Lonesome Crowded West. And it was the easiest thing in the world. Everyone fell for "the match of the century: absence vs. thin air," or the ambivalent logic of "Trailer Trash."

The arabesque lyrics of that song (and of "Convenient Parking") -- where each line both completes a thought and begins the next one, therefore modifying the meaning -- show an awe-inspiring wit imbued with a sensitivity to emotional complexity: "And I shout that your [sic] all fakes/And you should have seen the look on your face/And I guess that's what it takes/When comparing your bellyaches."

It recalls Bob Dylan's looping lyrical tricks from "Tangled up in Blue": "We always did feel the same/We just saw it from a different point/Of view/Tangled up in blue."

Modest Mouse's songs achieve a nearly mathematical (math is a compliment) ecstasy -- like an equation, there's a correctness, a specificity to the choices, all the way down to the harmonics. On the airy "Heart Cooks Brain," the loosely knitted and meandering melody rambles through the echoing interstices, but somewhere behind that, in the nearly measurable distance, is an old school hiphop-style record scratch.

It was a long time before I saw Modest Mouse live, but when I did, they were -- as expected -- three serious and fuzzy boys. They were almost imposing, certainly stoic; and this fed my impression of Isaac Brock as the premier arbiter of national exoticism.

I realize now that I had romanticized the West, though there are still elements of truth in the romance. But when I thought about moving across the country to Seattle, there was, in my rain-soaked vision of the city, the sense that "I'll be able to see Modest Mouse play every night!" And lucky me, after driving a Ryder truck for four days straight to get here -- listening to, ironically, This Is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About -- I arrived in time to see Brock hightail it out of town, fed up with rumors of rape allegations against him, as reported in this paper (no charges have been filed in the case -- the status of the investigation remains unclear).

So when I saw Modest Mouse backstage at a show in the Southern California desert, I took the opportunity to introduce myself to Isaac. He eyed me with suspicion, until I explained that the timing of my connection with The Stranger coincided with him moving to Chicago. He had a mouthful of metal -- the result of an unpleasant rendezvous between his jaw and a mugger's fist -- which exacerbated his lisping, terse anecdotes. But he looked me straight in the eyes as we talked. Isaac was slighter than I had thought -- just a slip of a man, really -- and it felt odd not to be looking up at him on a stage. He was a little bit friendly to me, which was even more unexpected.

That meeting deflated him in my eyes, in the best sense of the word. The greatness of his talent and the humility with which he conversed epitomized Western spirit once again. It may not have been the most poignant meeting in the world, but it moved me, just like Modest Mouse has always moved me. I don't know how to ask for more from an entertainer.

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