Although short on anything recognizably “gothic,” Mass Gothic, opening for Modest Mouse at the McGrath Amphitheater on Tuesday night, was definitely music for the masses. Lacking any distinct or intrinsic sound, the band provided competently performed radio rock that blended an arbitrary set of genres. It resulted in music that one would not turn off the radio to avoid but did not leave much of a lasting impression. At the very least, the pleasant weather made the experience far better than it may have been.
After what seemed an unnecessarily long set break, Modest Mouse came to the stage. I have been a fan of the band since the idyllic days of Lonesome Crowded West and The Moon and Antarctica, although I had not appreciated the last two albums nearly as much. Given the band’s overall paucity of work since 2007 and three year stretch since their sixth album, it was difficult to know whether the show would be an example of consistent excellence (such as Built to Spill provide) or more like an oddly timed reunion tour (such as the Pixies are wont to offer).
The band, now comprised of eight members (each of whom seems to be adept at playing at least two or three instruments), felt as though it had difficulty getting traction. Throughout the set, front man Isaac Brock seemed to be playing at odds with the band and asking that they anticipate his pace, never quite in sync with the tempo of the rest.
Most of the set was played with two drummers (and an assistant percussionist) and four guitars. The members of the band were clearly individually talented, although the total number of band members seemed unnecessary. The high points, musically, occurred primarily through the band’s occasional-use instruments — the trumpet (which got a huge and well-deserved round of applause from the audience) and violin (which was nice, although not foregrounded in the mix).
Brock’s banjo work was enjoyable as always, and the trademark discordant pep of the guitars reminded the audience that they were, indeed, watching Modest Mouse. That said, sometimes the watching proved challenging. As night had fallen, the lights, which did not appear to be particularly attuned to the goings-on onstage (a challenge, to be sure) would occasionally do more to blind the audience than illuminate the musicians. At points, this would distract from rather than enhance the show.
Tonally, the songs were infused with a dark intensity that was pronounced in “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes,” the second song of the set, and kept the band careening through the rest of the night. Brock’s trademark bark was muted throughout the choruses, taming the songs. Although he has never been accused of having a particularly melodious voice, he seemed more indifferent to enunciation and tune — many of the words seemed mumbled, slurred, or otherwise indistinguishable. One wondered whether the sound mix muffled the sound, or was the cause of the seeming disjunction.
Some of the older songs, such as “Doin’ the Cockroach,” seemed less busy and more integrated, although they were still prone to the same sense that whatever usually keeps the band together was constantly verging on falling apart. This felt less due to the band’s being gripped by a frenzy, though, where everyone on stage shares a sense of the set intensifying, and more a sense that the band itself lacked a coherent vision for what each song was to be.
By the end of the set, and throughout the long encore break, lightning began to flash — literally, not metaphorically. The band returned to race through a few more hits, including “Third Planet,” “Gravity Rides Everything,” and “Float On.” Several fans had left by this point, leaving only those more invested in the set or hoping to see a favored song performed.
Overall, it was enjoyable to see the band again, and most of those in the crowd seemed ecstatic and enthused (although the number of people talking to each other rather than watching the band allowed one to question whether the enthusiasm was caused by the band or by the ability to drink outdoors with friends on a lovely evening). In any case, one hopes that set of talented musicians begin creating new music together, once again, soon.