A Modest Celebration: 25th Anniversary of “The Lonesome Crowded West”

Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse performs at the Showbox in Seattle for the 25th Anniversary of the band's album "The Lonesome Crowded West." Photo courtesy of Jonson Kuhn with Sound Publishing.

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Jonson Kuhn | New SCENE

Seeing how November is the home of the Thanksgiving holiday, this is the time of year when we tend to reflect on what we’re mostly thankful for, and for me? I’m mostly thankful for a recent experience/moment in time I was able to share with my 9-year-old daughter Mia.

Since the time I was just a young punk in junior high in 1997, I’ve been a faithful and loyal fan of the Washington-based indie-rock band Modest Mouse. Back in 1997, when the world didn’t make sense and/or I didn’t make sense in the world, there was but one album I would turn to for comfort: “The Lonesome Crowded West.”

Modest Mouse is currently out touring to commemorate the 25th anniversary of their seminal breakthrough album and I was fortunate enough to procure press credentials for the first night of a three-night stay at Seattle’s Showbox venue on Monday, November 21.

The tour started in Missoula, Montana earlier this month and after traveling through much of the west/northwest, it is set to end in New York City at Terminal 5 on Dec. 17. Originally released by Ugly Casanova and Up Records in 1997, “The Lonesome Crowded West” was Modest Mouse’s fourth album and largely considered by fans — especially this fan— to be their best.

And as a fan, I’ve been attending Modest Mouse shows since the early 2000s and have watched the band’s lineup slowly grow over time from the original three-piece to as much as seven or eight, so it was thrilling to finally see a throwback to a much simpler and condensed four-piece version. Founding members Brock and drummer Jeremiah Green were joined by newest bassists Russell Higbee and Simon O’Connor on additional guitar.

Modest Mouse. Photo courtesy of Jonson Kuhn.

I’ve been to countless shows as a patron, but this time was special, this time I got to stand on the side of the stage where no one else was allowed to be, holding my camera, and proudly displaying my press badge, and perhaps the best part of all was seeing my daughter cheering me on from inside the crowd. As an esteemed member of the press, rules of engagement were pretty standard, you’re allowed to take photos within the pit for the first three songs and then the rest of the night you take photos from within the house.

As you might imagine with an anniversary show, they followed the album’s tracklist to the T, so my first three songs to shoot from the pit were, “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine,” “Heart Cooks Brain,” and “Convenient Parking.” While I have no idea how music works today when I was a kid I still looked forward to getting my hands on a physical copy of an album and playing it in order from start to finish because whether it was considered a concept album or not, there was often a story being subtly told, which certainly was the case with “The Lonesome Crowded West.”

In a 2012 interview with Pitchfork, Brock discussed, in-depth, the idea behind creating the album and how much of the motivation was birthed through disgust with what he called a “paving of the west” by strip malls. Brock said he saw the urban sprawl for himself while growing up in Washington between Issaquah and Seattle. And while many strip malls have turned into the very ghost towns Brock prophesied they’d one day become within the lyrics of the album, urban sprawl can still be seen and felt today all throughout the country, which is why an album like “The Lonesome Crowded West” still rings so true and is still so celebrated.

Brock, now 47, isn’t always quite as capable of regularly hitting those signature screams into the pickups of his guitar as he’s so well known for, but when there’s a sold-out crowd of over a thousand people screaming the lyrics for you, it doesn’t really matter, especially when the music hasn’t faltered in the least, in fact, it’s only aged like a fine wine. Original bassist Eric Judy left the band in 2011, but Higbee does a fine job of picking up where Judy left off, and with O’Connor providing guitar backups, it gave way for Brock and Green to play like the twenty-something kids they were when they first recorded the record.

Modest Mouse performs for a sold-out crowd at Seattle’s Showbox on November 21. Photo courtesy of Jonson Kuhn.

It’s nearly impossible to pick a favorite song off the album, but one that I was definitely looking forward to hearing was a track entitled “Trailer Trash,” not just because I love the song, but I’ve always felt like it somewhat mirrored my own childhood with regards to shouting hateful words towards my mother in trailer park driveways and then coming to regret it years later. The song sounded just as good as it ever did and, in fact, it was even updated with an outro of “Perpetual Motion Machine” off of the band’s 2009 EP “No One’s First, and You’re Next.”

As anyone who’s familiar with the record, it ends with a song entitled “Styrofoam Boots/It’s All Nice on Ice, Alright,” and so, too, did the concert. At which point there was some uncertainty as to whether or not there was going to be an encore, but before long the band returned with Brock explaining the delay was due to him trying to find a dry shirt to change into. With nothing else to find, he had to resort to wearing his own band’s merch shirt but wearing it inside out so as to not appear vain, and in doing so, staying true to the modest performer he’s always been.

The encore consisted of “A Life of Arctic Sounds,” “Edit the Sad Parts,” and “Interstate 8,” and while I can’t complain about “A Life of Arctic Sounds,” the other two songs are literally among my top five favorites, so it was nothing short of a cherry on top of an evening that was already ranked pretty high. As the encore played on, I watched as my daughter danced to songs she only knows from hearing them played countless times between myself and her mother, and I felt thankful. The future is uncertain, and it made me think about when the band was recording the album and if they ever saw themselves playing a 25-year anniversary someday. When I was listening to the album in seventh grade, I certainly never saw myself someday working for a newspaper, or attending a 25th-anniversary show with my daughter, but I’m so thankful it happened. So, here’s to the future and no matter what it brings, may you enjoy all the moments along the way. Happy holidays and in the words of my daughter’s favorite Modest Mouse song, may we all float on!

Mia Kuhn attending her fourth Modest Mouse show in Seattle at the Showbox. Photo courtesy of Jonson Kuhn.