Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.
Anyone attempting to make the argument that Pickin’ On Modest Mouse: A Bluegrass Tribute Featuring Iron Horse is a Cover Classic – an argument that was promised/threatened by my response to this Q&A a few days ago and is related to a defense of bluegrass covers we made a while back – needs to refute two rational, gut-level reactions to the artifact that is this album. First, one needs to establish that the album is not simply another gimmicky entry in the Pickin’ On series, a collection of fairly obvious mid-oughties albums that attempted to pin the banjo on unlikely donkeys in ways that were often funny and almost always “pretty good for a novelty album.” Second, one needs to demonstrate that this album is somehow different than other albums attempting to strip away all of the Modest Mouse noise to reveal the sensitive songwriting lurking just beneath the shouting.
Fortunately, if one thinks past these two knee-jerk reactions, it makes sense that Isaac Brock’s work would translate well to bluegrass. He plays the banjo. He signed Mason Jennings to his record label, Glacial Pace. He writes songs about work, jail, friendship, religion, addiction, and frustrating bosses. More pointedly, he writes about these subjects in a distinctly American diction marked by rural, working class whiteness.
Iron Horse – Trailer Trash (Modest Mouse cover)
No one, for example, should be surprised that this album closes with a successful bluegrass cover of “Trailer Trash.” It’s not difficult to find bluegrass sensibilities in a song about “short love with a long divorce / and a couple of kids of course.” Likewise, there’s nothing particularly shocking about setting “Polar Opposites” chorus of “I’m tryin’ / I’m tryin’ to drink away / the part of the day that I can not sleep away” to soaring, sing-along banjos.
Iron Horse – Ocean Breathes Salty (Modest Mouse cover)
However, the genius of this album isn’t that Iron Horse located Isaac Brock’s inner shitkicker, but that Iron Horse knew exactly what they were listening for and, while taking a liberty or two here and there, curated an album of ten songs that perform their shitkickerness in a variety of ways. In other words, the album is an album, a fully rendered cycle of songs, and not just a parlor trick. It opens with what might be the most unlikely success, a brisk and compact “Ocean Breathes Salty” that neither hides from nor dwells on the original’s uncertainty regarding the afterlife and the fate of a lost friend’s soul. This version owns up to the song’s religious doubt but coats any sharp edges with an aw-shucks fatalism by giving just as much weight to lyrics about a mind-clarifying stint in jail and the suddenly comforting insistence that “that is that and this is this.” The original’s confrontational culminating sentiment – “you wasted life why wouldn’t you waste death” – takes on a more plaintive note here, especially as it is tucked into the middle of the song. We end, instead, with the song’s challenge for us to really breathe the ocean and carry it with us as the song gives way to a very-slow fade on an extended, rolling solo.
Iron Horse – 3rd Planet (Modest Mouse cover)
Nearly as surprising, “3rd Planet” finds the gravel road in one of Brock’s most philosophical and abstract songs. In this context, it is easy to remember that all of the eye-in-the-sky imagery here is steeped in freemasonry. More important, the song crafts a yokel-y call and response: “That’s how (that’s how) the world (the world) began / and that’s how (that’s how) the world (the world) will end.” By going full-Hee Haw, Iron Horse reveals that Brock’s most intellectual impulses as a song writer have much in common with small-town solipsism: “the universe is shaped exactly like the Earth / if you go straight long enough, you’ll end up where you were.”
Again and again, these ten songs explore Americana as a genre and find vastly different thematic terrain. “Polar Opposites” laments the fact that “it’s the same on the weekends as the rest of the days.” A robust but mellowed down “Float On” takes its time with the song’s bad news, removing any shortsightedness from the original’s buoyant chorus. “Gravity Rides Everything” and “World at Large” cultivate a toothy-grinned empathy, finding warmth in “songs about drifters.” In “A Different City” we watch “the window of my color TV” and remember that, these days, everywhere gets the same 300 channels. Even the obvious closing track does something interesting, downplaying the angst of the original, converting “goddamn” into “oh man” and keeping the rhythm casual. The result doesn’t trivialize Brock’s pain so much as it makes it commonplace, regular, everyday. In its original context, “Trailer Trash” takes its indie-rock listener to tour the trailer park; here, the listener comes home to one.
All of this folksiness wouldn’t matter if the songs didn’t also compensate for what they lose by stripping Modest Mouse of the things that make the band sonically inventive. Though the various screeches and wheezings are hard to separate from the songs themselves, it is useful to consider these elements in the light of verfremdungseffekt, a theoretical notion forwarded by Bertolt Brecht that has been poorly translated into popular vernacular as the alienation effect. The gist of Brecht’s accumulated thinking regarding the subject is that art is inherently prevented from affecting political or cultural change if audiences become too immersed in their own emotional experiences. In theory, a person loses the ability to reflect upon their experience in meta-cognitive ways if they are too busy feeling. Furthermore, Brecht suggests that emotionally affecting art has little choice but to reinforce the status quo because audiences won’t feel the right things about subjects or ideas they are not predisposed to already care about. If I am right about Brechtian stuff going on with Modest Mouse, the band’s abrasiveness serves an pseudo-intellectual purpose, providing reason and distance to reflect upon an indie band gleaning working-class problems for smart but distinctly non-academic philosophical insights.
Without anything between the listener and these stark songs about struggles of faith, drink, and loss, one might expect the songs to become bathetic or to crumple under their own weight. They don’t. Bluegrass has its own particular verfremdungseffekt, a distancing effect made possible by simply standing aloof of one’s suffering, drinkin’ and pickin’ and grinnin’ as one voice singing about loss joins another in a chorus that is catchier than it ought to be.