Modest Mouse – The Fruit That Ate Itself (Japanese import)

5 out of 5

Label: Rebel Beat Factory, K Records

Produced by: Calvin Johnson (recorded by)

I’ve said it before, I’m sure I’ll say it again: I miss this version of Modest Mouse so much.  The loose, shambly version, when Isaac Brock’s cobwebbed-corners observations seemed like his only way of communicating, and layered vocals were used to strengthen a lisping, off-key yelp.  I don’t wish the insecurities that informed early MM back upon Brock, but they gave their earlier records a sense of openness and earnestness that would get lost during the group’s – and Isaac’s maturity.  And latter day MM is, for better or worse, a lot of artifice to my ears.  Wrapped up in this is the evolution of the band itself, from the jangly unit that would peak perhaps at Moon and Antarctica, guitar and bass and drums grooving together, ebbing and flowing, to the soundpiece for one man – Brock – and more traditional verse-chorus-verse structures.

And I was also with the reviewers on this EP for years: That rated against the era, sandwiched between the long-winded but stunning Long Drive, emotional powerhouse Interstate 8, and the defining raw-edged rocker Lonesome Crowded West, The Fruit That Ate Itself seems entirely disappointing.  None of the songs are “complete” and there’s not a standout single you necessarily want to play again and again.

But now that I’ve had about a decade to fall out of love with the Mouse and I can listen to these albums in isolation…  Wow.  Not only is this one of the most front-to-back consistent and effective releases from MM, its also that rarity of an EP that takes advantage of the short format to try something slightly different and that’s idealized for an extended play.

The structure of Fruit offsets interlinking back-masked guitar tracks with full songs, though the definition of “full” is relative; one could call these sketches, the way they fade in and out but I find the approach is what makes the interlinking bits so effective, truly lulling you right into the next song.  And because each of those songs feels thematically linked – dirty fingernails, rotting fruit, under the darkened sky of the cover art – the EP never runs into the hard stop that most Mouse albums have over a particularly wandering or abrasive track.  The play through fittingly ends on the best two jams: The perhaps sarcastically optimistic Summer and Karma’s Payment Plan, the concept of the stupid threads that may or may not connect things a perfect summary for how Brock seemed to view the world in those days.

As mentioned, none of these are particularly singles, but the whole EP is one swooping song in a way, peppered with damn catchy moments, crisply brought to life by producer Calvin Johnson.

The import version of this EP also includes the tracks from the Blue Cadet 3 7″.  Those songs have since been made available elsewhere, but initially this was a much more convenient way of listening to them over digging out the single, and it’s actually a smart companion piece to Fruit, with the excellent Duke’s Up (its repetition structurally very similar to songs like The Way Down on the EP) and the fragile It Always Rains On a Picnic broken up by Sad Sappy Sucker-type answering machine recordings, mirroring the back-masked tracks.

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