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Modest Mouse 

We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank (Epic)

Ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr knows a little something about dealing with strong-willed vocalists (ahem, Morrissey), so it's no surprise that his contributions to the poppiest Modest Mouse record yet are solid. But it's still a treat to hear how focused Isaac Brock and company are on this lushly arranged disc, perhaps thanks to Marr's veteran influence on his new band. "Dashboard" is the Talking Heads taking a spin at the roller disco (and is Ship's über-mainstream moment), while other songs channel the maritime folk of the Waterboys, strident dance-punk, Built to Spill's nervous energy, and Pavement's drawl.

At the same time, Brock's grunts, growls, and existential musings sound even more unhinged -- mainly because he's up against hi-fi production, airtight hooks, and numerous appearances by Shins vocalist James Mercer (the latter's reedy, cherubic tenor anchors the rollicking R.E.M.-like "Florida"). And while the album starts to sound boring and feel bloated by its end -- and longtime fans will likely be aghast at Ship's commercial viability -- its sublime moments, coupled with Modest Mouse's newfound clarity, make for a bewitching listen.

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