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An Unlikely Chart-Topper Aims Even Higher

Three years after its first big hit, Modest Mouse returns with its most accessible song yet.
Three years after its first big hit, Modest Mouse returns with its most accessible song yet.

Three years have passed since Modest Mouse made the jump from indie-rock cult favorite to unlikely chart-topper — thanks in large part to the ubiquitous single "Float On" — so expectations are high for the forthcoming We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank. Considering that legendary Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr has joined the band's lineup, expectations seem almost too high.

Listening to the new "Dashboard," Marr fans expecting his signature atmospherics may be disappointed: Except for the signature staccato click of muted guitar strings every four bars or so, he barely registers. Still, "Dashboard" marks a startling step in Modest Mouse's career, virtually completing its transition to the mainstream from its weirder, more dissonant roots.

While "Dashboard" lacks the snaky charm of "Float On," it's a pure pop confection: danceable, uncomplicated and ripe for airplay. Fans too young to remember XTC will likely draw comparisons to Franz Ferdinand, what with the song's stiff, guitar-driven neo-disco rhythms. Supported by slick production, a string section and lots of horns, it builds up considerable goodwill once the shock wears off. Singer Issac Brock seems all too aware of his odd career crossroads when he sings, "Well, it would have been, could have been worse than you would ever know / Oh, the dashboard melted, but we still have the radio." His modesty is becoming.

Listen to yesterday's 'Song of the Day.'

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David Brown
David Browne is a contributing editor of Rolling Stone and the author of Goodbye 20th Century: A Biography of Sonic Youth and Dream Brother: The Lives and Music of Jeff and Tim Buckley. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, Spin and other outlets. He is currently at work on Fire and Rain, a book that will track the lives and careers of The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young during the pivotal year of 1970.