Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Modest Mouse -- "The Whale Song" (2009)



I guess I am a scout
So I should find a way out
So everyone can find a way out

Before we get to this song, let's take a little trip to Cape Cod.

Henry David Thoreau visited Cape Cod four times between 1849 and 1857.  (His first visit -- in October 1849 -- was the basis for his book, Cape Cod.)  I've visited Cape Cod almost 50 times -- the first time was in April 1976, the last time about a month ago.

Thoreau took the brand-new Old Colony Railroad from Boston to Sandwich, rode a stagecoach along what is now Route 6A from there to Orleans (roughly 35 miles), and walked the 25 miles from there to Provincetown, where Cape Cod ended.

I've travelled the same approximate route many times via bus, car and bicycle, and I assure you that things have changed dramatically since Thoreau visited.  In fact, things have changed dramatically since I first visited in 1976 -- taking the "T" from Harvard Square to South Station in downtown Boston, a bus from South Station to Hyannis, a smaller bus from there to Dennis, and walking from the bus stop in Dennis to the house overlooking Massachusetts Bay that my in-laws had bought before my wife was born.

Here's what the front of that house looked like in 1976:



Here's the back of the house today:


If you make a quarter-turn to the left (looking in the direction of 9 o'clock instead of 12 o'clock), this is the view you get:


Another quarter-turn to the left (so the house is directly behind you) gives you this view of Massachusetts Bay:


For close to two decades now, one of the highlights of my Cape Cod trips has been riding the Cape Cod Rail Trail.  The Old Colony Railroad that Thoreau had ridden to Sandwich had been extended to Provincetown by 1873.  The railroad thrived as a passenger line until highway bridges opened over the Cape Cod Canal and automobiles replaced trains as the preferred way to get to the Cape.  Freight service ended in the 1960's, and the railroad right-of-way between South Dennis and Wellfleet was eventually turned into the Cape Cod Rail Trail. 

The main CCRT is 22 miles long, or 44 miles long from the beginning to the end and back.  (There are some shorter branch trails along the way.)  I usually ride it in three roughly-equal out-and-back segments -- that means each day's ride is 14-16 miles.  My iPod Shuffle is a necessary accessory for these rides, of course -- like all rail-trails, the CCRT is quite flat so it's no great strain to sing along loudly all the way.  This year, my Blackberry camera came in quite handy as well.

About 1 1/2 miles from the beginning of the rail trail, you cross over the Herring River in Harwich -- last year, there was a family of swans visible from this vantage point:


Here's a cranberry bog -- you see quite a few of these along the trail:


(In case you're wondering, that's a partly eaten apple on the seat of my rental bike.)

Rhododendrons were at their peak on Cape Cod when we were there last month:


The Pleasant Lake General Store (right on the trail at mile 5) is a nice old-fashioned place to stop for a cold drink or a snack.


Seymour Pond (mile 6) is my usual turnaround point on day one -- it's one of many "kettle ponds" on Cape Cod, which were created by retreating glaciers during the last ice age.  (Thoreau's Walden Pond is also a kettle pond.)


I always put some new CDs on my iPod to "break in" during these rides, and this year I got familiar with an almost brand-new Modest Mouse CD, No One's First and You're Next.  It has only eight songs, all of which are leftovers from the band's previous two full-length CDs.  Not surprisingly, there's no particular coherence to the CD -- it's not akin to a novel, but more like a collection of short stories featuring different characters.

This song consists of a single four-measure phrase repeated 45 times -- each time through is a little different, of course.  The bass guitar does most of the work the first four times through the four-measure phrase, establishing the foundation of the song.  Guitars then join in and the next 18 four-measure phrases are purely instrumental -- the music becomes louder, more complex, and more intense.  

The next 11 repetitions of the four-measure phrase feature vocals.  The lines quoted above (with some small variations) are repeated 11 times -- I guess you would call these lines a chorus of sorts.  There are also two "verses" that are sung over some of the choruses.

Finally, we go all-instrumental for 12 more repetitions of our four-measure theme.

That probably all sounds like this song must be incredible repetitive and boring, but it isn't.  Don't take my word for it -- most reviewers liked it a lot.  One student reviewer (who accurately described the song as "[s]tarting out with a relatively simple melody [that] slowly descends into a sprawling, colorful chaos") thought it was clearly the best song on the CD.

The estimable Robert Christgau gave the CD an A-minus grade, and said that the "The Whale Song" bemoans singer/lyricist's Isaac Brock's "metaphorical uselessness as it demonstrates his capacity for beauty."  (No wonder Christgau has awarded himself the title "Dean of American Rock Critics."  That's some mighty fancy writin'.)

I'll discuss the next song on this Modest Mouse CD and tell you about the rest of my Cape Cod bike ride in my next post.

Here's the official music video for "The Whale Song."  (Don't ask me what it means -- I don't have a clue.)



Here's a video of a live performance of this song:



Here's a link if you want to buy "The Whale Song" on iTunes:


And here's a link to Amazon:



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