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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Three years ago, the group Modest Mouse from Washington State grew from a respected indie band to full-fledged rock stardom with its song "Float On."

(Soundbite of song, "Float On")

MODEST MOUSE (Rock Band): (Singing) I backed my car into a cop car the other day. Well, he just drove off sometimes life's ok.

BLOCK: Modest Mouse has a new CD out called "We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank." Our critic, Will Hermes, has this review.

(Soundbite of song, "Float On")

MODEST MOUSE: (Singing) And we'll all float on okay. And we'll all float on okay.

WILL HERMES: Modest Mouse's "Float On" was a phenomenon. I mean a rock song that got heavy commercial radio play that didn't suck? Who even thought that was possible anymore? It even received a pretty good cover version on that bizarre kiddy pop CD series called "Kidz Bop." But coming off a million-selling CD, the question, of course, was will Modest Mouse start pandering to the mainstream or will they be stubborn and weird and commercially brilliant only by accident. The answer, which I deliver happily, is a bit of both.

(Soundbite of song "Dashboard")

MODEST MOUSE: (Singing) Well, it would've been, could've been worse than you would ever know. Oh, the dashboard melted, but we still have the radio. Oh, it should've been, could've been worse than you would ever know. Well, you told me about nowhere well it sounds like someplace I'd like to go. Oh, it could've been, should've been worse than you would ever know.

HERMES: I can't imagine a better line than "the dashboard melted but we still have the radio" to holler along with while stuck in traffic. And I don't know what was in Isaac Brock's head when he and his bandmates wrote it. But "Dashboard" is an example of a song that's commercial by design, and whose greatness stems from that. It addresses the basic needs of a mass audience, in this case, something for them to holler along with while stuck in traffic. At other points, however, the album gets stranger.

(Soundbite of song "Parting Of The Sensory")

MODEST MOUSE: (Singing) Some day you will die and someone's or something's will steal your carbon. Some day something will die and somehow you'll figure out. How often you will die somehow and something going to steal your carbon well? Some day you will die somehow and something's going to steal your carbon.

HERMES: The other obvious question about Modest Mouse's new record is: Does the addition of guitarist Johnny Marr make the band sound more like Marr's old band, the beloved 1980s alt-rock drama queens, The Smiths. And the answer there, which I also deliver happily, is no. Not that I don't adore The Smiths, of course, but right now Modest Mouse's Portland, Oregon neighbor The Decemberists probably do a better impression of The Smiths than anyone. And Johnny Marr clearly understands that the glittery drama he created with singer Morrissey would only work behind Isaac Brock in small doses. So his work here is subtle.

(Soundbite of song, "We've Got Everything")

MODEST MOUSE: (Singing) Well, first off, Gary got drunk, fell asleep in his car til about noon. Flat Top Tony got all messed up, split his lip chasing cheap perfume. Well, look at our boat in the bay; it looks like some sad-ass little canoe. We've done everything. We've done everything.

HERMES: Some people complain that Johnny Marr's work here is too subtle, and I thought so too at first. But then I realized the greatness of this collaboration is how Marr adds just a touch of '80s rock flavor to a band that already has its own distinctive sound. In a landscape of tedious '80s revival bands who seem to aspire in nothing greater than recreating the styles and vibe of a bygone era, this strategy seems a smart one, and the result is probably the best Modest Mouse album yet. But if Marr sticks around, it might not remain the best for long.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: The new album from Modest Mouse is called "We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank." Our reviewer is Will Hermes.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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