Modest Mouse has always been hard to predict. And with eight years and boatloads of starts and stops since its last album, there was no telling what "Strangers to Ourselves" (Epic) was going to sound like.
It seemed that all the momentum from the band's radio hit "Float On" and the No. 1 album "We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank" in 2007 sort of spooked Modest Mouse singer-guitarist-mastermind Isaac Brock. Rather than staying on the same, now-successful path, there were rumors of collaborations with OutKast's Big Boi and Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic -- which turned out to be true, though none of those songs are here.
Instead, "Strangers to Ourselves" finds Modest Mouse moving forward, but in all sorts of directions. The biggest risk on the album, "Pistol," could oddly end up becoming its most successful song -- a weird tale imagining Andrew Cunanan before he murdered five people, including designer Gianni Versace, set to an industrial dance beat that could find its way to pop radio and clubs. Brock's vocals are distorted and delivered in a tone that's somewhere between hip-hop and spoken word. It would be a fascinating new direction for the band, except nothing else on "Strangers to Ourselves" sounds like it.
"Pistol" is paired nicely with "Ansel," which oddly applies '80s new wave production to the Modest Mouse indie-rock sound of the ''90s, creating a memorable mix that calls to mind the goth of Sisters of Mercy and glam rock filtered through Duran Duran.
Brock has also expanded his lyrical themes, especially on the single "Lampshades on Fire," which imagines how we'll have to find another planet after partying on Earth for too long and destroying it. "The air's on fire so we're movin' on," Brock sings over a good time, island-tinged groove. "Better find another one 'cause this one's done."
Not all of Modest Mouse's experiments pay off as well as these do, but they all do succeed in keeping everyone guessing about what comes next.
THE GRADE B+