At one point in 2004, during the heyday of their single “Float On,” it seemed that Washington-based sextet Modest Mouse would finally breach the warm embrace of mainstream indie rock. What with frontman Isaac Brock’s invective-fueled lyricism that smacked so effectively of the Pixies’s Francis Black, there were no better candidates for a breakout. Yet despite the infectious “Dashboard” and other offerings that followed, the band soon marched back into near-obscurity with the pained regularity of Brock’s mustache-twirling persona.
Modest Mouse’s perfunctory b-sides collection No One’s First, and You’re Next, which includes unreleased material from 2004’s Good News for People Who Love Bad News and 2007’s We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, is rich with the band’s trademarks: manic and self-deprecating disillusionment, ironic sing-alongs, and seething hot-cold vocal routines. In other words, nothing audiences haven’t already heard from Modest Mouse, and nothing that will stem the group’s quick course back into respectable anonymity.
The problem, of course, is the double-edged nature of the band’s demented posturing. Boring when they’re not acting out, but too jarring when hitting their groove, Brock and company are forced to toe a finicky line between normalcy and absurdity. The circular, acoustic “Autumn Beds” is the former, indistinctive and genial, while tracks like the schizophrenic “King Rat” are the latter, finding the band bordering dangerously on the verge of a musical nervous breakdown. As the song nearly falls apart and Brock races from growling baritone to near-intelligible squeaks, listeners will wonder if No One’s First has a middle ground.
It does, fortunately. Though brief, the wonderfully spastic “I’ve Got It All (Most),” which keeps Brock on a short leash while the rest of the guys dreamily jam to a crispy beat, nearly recaptures the magic of “Float On” and “Dashboard.” As Brock coos, “How can someone inconsistent mess up so consistently?,” audiences will be asking the same of Modest Mouse, wondering when the band will find its sweet spot on a more regular basis.