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Modest Mouse Concert Marred By Nauseating Sound Problems

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If you came across the pairing of Modest Mouse and Brand New and thought to yourself, "What an odd bill," you're right.

The two bands don't have a lot in common, and their fan bases barely overlap. The only similarity is that they experienced their peak popularity at about the same time in the mid-2000s, but the common themes end there. Modest Mouse made a name for itself by making oddball, thoughtful indie rock, while Brand New was igniting the pop-punk world with its carefully constructed songs cataloging the turbulent emotions of youth.

The two bands have swapped orders on every stop this tour, and Brand New played first at Comerica Theatre last night. It was everything a major summer concert tour should be. The music was tight and executed live at a high level. As one song ended, the next one crisply and cleanly began. Singer Jesse Lacey's screams and melodies came out in perfect tune and without a single sign of fatigue. The panels of jagged lines and lights behind the band flashed and exploded and cooled down with the music. The set was sharp and professional, and the crowd ate up every second, singing along and cheering in recognition at the first notes of every song.

Modest Mouse was a different story. The night's headliner frequently suffered amateur sound issues. Singer Isaac Brock's microphone produced grating, high-pitched feedback the whole night. He also suffered bizarre guitar pedal issues that injected nauseating, unintentional distortion into some of the band's most well-known songs. Songs would end and guitar techs would rush onto the stage and hand instruments over to either Brock or one of the other musicians on stage, leaving the rest of the eight band members standing around staring vacantly into the crowd. For a band whose albums feature sublime, flawless transitions, the effect in the audience was jarring. The dead noise didn't help the momentum or feed into the energy of the crowd, which had already thinned a little after Brand New finished.

Maybe frequent technical glitches are the result of a band not touring very much. Monday night was just the third time Modest Mouse has visited Phoenix since 2009, and the band released its first album in eight years, Strangers To Ourselves, last year. While the album didn't veer too much from the band's established sound, it nevertheless produced polarizing responses from fans and critics. Some thought the band hadn't moved the needle enough for being away for eight years; others embraced the record as a return to form. 

At the concert, Strangers To Ourselves accounted for five songs, the best-represented album in the set, tied with The Moon & Antarctica. The band opened with "Tiny Cities Made of Ashes," from the latter album, an unexpected but driving number to kick off the set. The band then dipped into the new album for "The Tortoise and the Tourist," following that with "Black Cadillacs," from Good News for People Who Love Bad News, and "Lampshades On Fire," another track from the new album.

As the song ended, Brock started to tell a story about the band getting on a plane in Montana. His words were mostly inaudible, something that at the time I attributed to his mumbling voice, which would make sense given his diction on the Modest Mouse records. In retrospect, this was just the beginning of the sound issues that would plague the entire set. 

It's worth noting that despite the sound issues, Brock has enviable guitar chops. Not only was he an animated showman on stage, he had no problem singing his rhythmically odd vocals and playing complicated guitar runs at the same time. When he would solo, he would at times sound like Nels Cline, Wilco's free jazz-oriented guitarist. Brock's guitar chops were a pleasant surprise, when you could make hear them over the dissonant din caused by his malfunctioning gear.

The next three songs were "Shit In Your Cut," "King's Rat," and "Pistol." On "Pistol," Brock's vocals had an odd, robotic distortion on them that was very different from what appears on the album. Given the bevy of technical problems throughout the evening, it's hard to say if the effect was intentional. That said, the band ended the song with a high-impact instrumental section that was undeniably exciting. 

It was at this point that Brock started apologizing about his guitar pedals.

"I turned a lot of them on but forgot to turn a bunch of them off," he said, somewhat sheepishly as he paused to bend over the board in front of him. 

The band continued with "Broke," "Dashboard," "I Came As A Rat," and "Ocean Breathes Salty." Something was off with the sound again for that last song. High-pitched feedback came from Brock's mic. Weird distortion, likely caused by leaving the wrong effects pedal on, gave an out-of-place edge to the song's mellow beginning. The effect was that the wonderfully mellow song had a lot of extra sounds to it, and none of them really added anything enjoyable to the experience. 

"Night On The Sun" and "Wild Packs Of Family Dogs" followed, plagued by similar noise issues. This prompted another apology from Brock.

"It's just all bullshit on my end," he said, before the band launched into "Cowboy Dan," which suffered from more ear-splitting feedback before the set mercifully ended with "Missed The Boat."

The band left the stage but the house lights remained dimmed, the universal sign of an upcoming encore. The band returned and played "The World At Large," but there was still feedback, and my ears were so fatigued by that point that I left before the song finished. Apparently, the band closed the night out with "Sugar Boats."

I have no doubt that a Modest Mouse show with great sound would have been an incredible experience. But if you're going to play a concert as loud as Modest Mouse did last night at Comerica Theatre, you'd better make sure your sound equipment and crew is up to the task. Sadly, that was not the case last night.

Critic's Notebook

Last Night: Brand New and Modest Mouse at Comerica Theatre

The Crowd: Millenials galore, but more Gen Xers than you'd expect. The theater was packed, completely sold out.

Overheard: "If I die mysteriously, you're suspect number one. Suspect number one is always the girlfriend" — said to a woman by a guy whose body language indicated he may have not been joking. 

Personal Bias: The  Moon & Antarctica and Good News For People Who Love Bad News are very much a part of my musical DNA. 

TL;DR: Brand New put on an amazing set. Modest Mouse was shamefully amateur by comparison.

Set list
"Tiny Cities Made of Ashes"
"The Tortoise and the Tourist"
"Black Cadillacs"
"Lampshades On Fire"
"3rd Planet"
"Shit In Your Cut"
"King's Rat"
"I Came As A Rat"
"Ocean Breathes Salty"
"Night On The Sun"
"Wild Packs Of Family Dogs"
"Cowboy Dan"
"Missed The Boat"

"The World At Large"
"Sugar Boats"

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