“What’s the point of re-issuing a record?” someone asked me the other day. Most everyone just chalks it up to artists and labels wanting to sell more widgets. With the advent of streaming services, we essentially have everything we want at our fingertips. But after a long conversation about music with a younger English friend of mine the other day, the answer to the aforementioned question became clear:
The topic of Modest Mouse came up, and the young Englishman said, “I listened to The Moon & Antarctica a while back, but apart from that I’m not that filled in with Modest Mouse.” The idea that someone didn’t grow up with Modest Mouse as the soundtrack to their adolescence took a moment for me to process. Then I considered what the impact of a reissue’s distribution and press rounds could have on young ears. It’s another chance to discover a classic.
Conversely, feelings like the sheer joy I experienced running up the stairs with my mail order package containing a gorgeous double vinyl LP of The Lonesome Crowded West, make it so superfans from 17 years ago can get the warm and fuzzies from a physical copy of this re-issue too. Let’s put the fogeys like me aside for a second and consider what someone who’s just getting into The Lonesome Crowded West, in all of its contemporary Americana greatness is in for:
They’ll hear the frenetic opening notes of “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine” to its melancholy breakdowns casting shade on mundane consumerism, then weave back into an explosion of energy that was leaving the grunge-rock movement behind. They’ll notice one of the earliest uses of turntablism in a rock song on “Heart Cooks Brain,” that only gets overshadowed by Isaac Brock’s beautiful juxtaposition of soul and body with “In this place that I call home/My brain’s the cliff and my heart’s the bitter buffalo” over a timeless guitar riff. The Lonesome Crowded West is an album that grips the listener with lasting guitars, hip-hop elements, ranging emotions, social discourse and introspective lyrics. All by the end of the second song.
That young listener arrives at the core focus of the record on the third track, “Convenient Parking,” which sees Isaac Brock lamenting the veritable concrete jungle that the world around him has become. It’s the start of an observational eloquence that sets Brock apart as a lyricist. He builds the imagery of driving through the country staring out the window and observing the human condition, passing from town to town and detailing the minutiae of the lives he passes, often his own.
But if this young listener isn’t an engaged one, then rest assured he’ll be bouncing off the walls the moment the happily harrowing guitars of “Lounge (Closing Time)” come on and comfortably perplexed and anticipatory following the fiddle and banjo of “Jesus Christ Was An Only Child.”
A legendary record establishes its own vernacular, quirks and cast of characters. Surely our neophyte will be googling for an hour trying to figure out what the hell “Doin’ the Cockroach” is. They’ll smile, thinking of the nostalgia of their own first car and wishing for a vehicle as poetic as a “Baby Blue Sedan.” Pictures will swirl in his head of a man named “Cowboy Dan” who’s “a major player in the cowboy scene/He goes to the reservation drinks and gets mean.” Out of the concrete jungle, through Indian reservations and into the desert, it’s a real and sweeping portrait of the American West. This same road leads into the album’s most beautiful moment: In a trailer park.
The raw human condition is laid out on “Trailer Trash,” where Brock sings of when he lived in an Oregon trailer park as a child and recalls memories of items symbolic of his white poverty like “eating snowflakes with plastic forks/and a paper plate of course.” It’s woven into the most gripping melody on the record that culminates with a guitar solo that still plays in our heads regularly, even after 17 years. It’s not just Lonesome Crowded West’s ability to spew lyrics that tell the story of every town you pass while driving up the coast on Highway 101, big or small; it’s how it tells these stories over timeless arrangements that keep the listener coming back for more and anxiously awaiting the next track on the record.
If there was ever a record to listen to on a road trip by yourself, this is it. From the twangy bass line on “Out of Gas” to the five-minute breakdown on “Trucker’s Atlas,” to banging on your steering well in the middle of nowhere belting “I’m trying! I’m trying to..drink away the part of the day that I cannot sleep away!” from “Polar Opposities” (true story).
Feeling nostalgic yet? The importance of this reissue is for a slice of modern American history, as told through music, to not go by the wayside. It’s so our children don’t hear Modest Mouse and say “You always want to hear this OLD stuff Dad!” Reissuing this record is an effort to bridge generations around the music that defines the turnover into the internet age. It even serves to further show off a fine American work to the global music-loving population, like my English friend at the beginning of this story.
My favorite moment of the week was ripping apart the cardboard that covered this reissued vinyl record before I could even walk in the door. So many memories came swirling back of the great and awful times I’ve had while this record was at the center of my life. And this is why the reissue isn’t just to capture the attention of the younger generation; it’s also a reward, a reminder and a bronze cast of a moment in your life for the rest of us.