Now that Modest Mouse have fully established themselves as a major-label indie rock band -- no longer an oxymoron! -- with the success of 2004's Good News for People Who Love Bad News (though they had actually been on Sony, through Epic, since 2000's The Moon & Antarctica), they face the difficult task of trying to follow up a mainstream hit while still retaining the adroit quirkiness that won them fans in the first place. Finding that space between "creativity" and "accessibility" is not easy, but the band (with help from Johnny Marr, among others) is probably as well, if not better, equipped as anyone to tackle the challenge. The first single, "Dashboard," is catchy and interesting, even a little off-kilter, but it's also completely radio-friendly, in that dancey Franz Ferdinand kind of way, and the album's opener, "March into the Sea," has great juxtaposition between Isaac Brock's maniacal Cookie Monster laugh and lighter accordion and string work. It's slightly unconventional, and has that raucous energy the band has thrived on, but it's also wholly understandable and approachable, and a lot of fun. Still, too often it seems as if Modest Mouse plays it safe on We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank. James Mercer, the singer of the "life-changing" Garden State darlings the Shins, shows up three times on background vocals, and while on "Florida" this works well enough, "Missed the Boat" and "We've Got Everything" are among the weakest tracks on the record, too predictable, in that radio-indie-rock style, to do much more than just take up space. There's nothing overtly wrong with them (or the similarly boring "Education" or "People as Places as People") -- Brock's lyrics are as wackily introspective as ever -- but the band had never just gotten by on being nice-sounding and unmemorable. It's not that Modest Mouse has lost it, or sold out; tracks like "Parting of the Sensory" and "Fly Trapped in a Jar" combine digestible guitar lines and phrasing with a rawer intensity, and show that the group is indeed capable of moving innovate "indie" music to the mainstream ("someday you will die somehow and something's gonna steal your carbon," Brock sings ingeniously over pounding, swirling drums in a kind of post-modern chant in "Parting"), but overall, We Were Dead Before... has chosen the safer, more acceptable route over the more adventurous one. Modest Mouse is a talented bunch, and so the album still works, is still enjoyable. But because they've built themselves on pushing boundaries and traditional sounds, it's also a glaring representation of all they could do, but won't.
AllMusic Review by Marisa Brown