Sun Kil Moon – Ocean Breathes Salty

Tiny Cities
Year :
Modest Mouse / Red House Painters / Mark Lanegan

Modest Mouse is a great band that, somehow, is generally awful in concert.

The first (actually, only) time I saw Modest Mouse in concert was during the first run of the on-again-off-again Unlimited Sunshine summer concert series. For the uninitiated, the Unlimited Sunshine tour is (was?) a sporadically organized annual tour curated by Cake, perhaps the most off-beat band to find a home on commercial radio in the last 20 years. Much like Cake’s own music, the lineup of that first Unlimited Sunshine tour was a musical hodgepodge. The show featured electronic jams courtesy of Mexico’s Kinky, a rare appearance from De La Soul, a shorter set from Cake, a complete, show-stopping headline performance from the Flaming Lips, all with jug-band interludes between sets via The Hackensaw Boys. Modest Mouse played a set smack in the middle of all this on a hot summer day to a sold out crowd in Boston.

I had been listening a lot from Modest Mouse before the show. As an aspiring college radio DJ, I had recently discovered a copy of Building Nothing Out of Something on the shelves of WSHL-FM. In the early days of online music circa 2002, tracking down MP3s was still an arduous task and finding complete records from artists on small indie labels online was a rare experience. Having a CD in your hands was still the best way to absorb a complete work from a new band. It was still exciting to bring home a new CD and the process filled music discovery with a kind of mystery that’s hard to comprehend now that all of the world’s music is at our fingertips. Modest Mouse seemed particularly special at the time—they had some similarities to their immediate peers (Built to Spill being their most obvious touchstone), but they brought an edgier—at times even schizophrenic—sound to the table. More than that, their lyrics mined subjects rarely heard in any musical niche. Urban sprawl, death and the afterlife, and the nature of space and time were all fair game on Modest Mouse records. Simply put, they were unique.

My friends at the show had never heard a lick of Modest Mouse before the show. We were all there, first and foremost, for Cake and the Flaming Lips after all. I was excited, though, for the Modest Mouse set and, while not exactly hyping the band, still managed to set high expectations for the rest of the group. They were in for a treat, or so I said.

What followed was, perhaps, one of the weakest attempts at winning over a crowd I have ever seen. The band didn’t play poorly but seemed either obvilious or apathetic to fact that, for the most part, no one in the audience had ever heard of them. Beyond that, an even smaller segment of average music fans had yet developed a taste for their style of lyrically dense and sonically jarring brand of rock music. My fellow concert goers were confused. Why was I so enthusiastic about this weird band?

It wasn’t until a year or so later that a friend who attended the show with me stopped me, wondering why he hadn’t gotten into the band sooner. He had just discovered The Moon & Antarctica and been converted. As had been the case for me, the band’s lyrics ultimately won him over.

Sun Kil Moon’s rendition of “Ocean Breathes Salty” (a standout track from Modest Mouse’s suprise commercial breakthrough, Good News for People Who Love Bad News) participates in a long tradition of stripping, slowing, and saddening songs. It takes no risks and breaks no new ground. For that reason, I find it to be, oddly enough, a perfect cover to play for someone who might appreciate the Modest Mouse’s work but struggles with the unusually sparse guitarwork or Isaac Brock’s idiosyncratic yelp.

Sun Kil Moon distills “Ocean Breathes Salty” to little more than its lyrics and, in doing so, create a wonderful showcase for Modest Mouse’s greatest strengths. Theirs is music that is often difficult and obscure but is all open for rich contemplation and welcomes repeated listens. Sun Kil Moon provide a fast track to understanding the band’s M.O. while honoring the spirit of the lyrics. It’s an interesting listen if you’re already a fan but I would guess that it can be something more if you’re not.

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(@YahSureMan) is the Founder of The Daily Soundtrack and Bark Attack Media. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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