Driving off into the distance can feel like the answer to everything. That's especially true when you’re a 20-year-old lost in his own head like Isaac Brock was when Modest Mouse recorded their 1996 debut, This Is a Long Drive for Someone With Nothing to Think About. It's an album about squeezing therapy from the monotony of the frontier and the highways, swaying grass and spinning colors of the horizon embedded within it.

Brock had been playing with bassist Eric Judy and drummer Jeremiah Green for about four years when the band gathered to record Long Drive, and their sound had coalesced around a propulsive communal rhythm that sometimes flowed softly like water and sometimes rumbled and crashed like tires on a back country road. It was a sound that worked as a kind of tonic for Brock, who had spent his teenage years under the gray skies of Seattle suburb Issaquah, close both to the clatter of the city and the vastness of rural life.

The trio recorded Long Drive at the K Records studios in Olympia, the same place they had recorded Sad Sappy Sucker – the unhinged, unofficial debut album they recorded in 1994 and 1995 but that wouldn’t see a proper release until 2001. The production on Long Drive is no frills and lo-fi, typical of the DIY recording ethos of K Records. It was produced by Steve Wold, who records his own rough-hewn blues under the name Seasick Steve. (Wold ran away from his own home in 1954 to ride the rails; he'd seen more than his share of long drives.)

Photo: Pat Graham
Photo: Pat Graham

It isn’t hard to figure out where Brock’s head was at when the band made Long Drive; he talks about it plainly throughout the record. On "Talking S--t About a Pretty Sunset," a song about feeling stifled by everything (even pretty things), he sings, "I've changed my mind so much I can’t even trust it / My mind changed me so much I can’t even trust myself." The only answer to a zero-sum dilemma like that is to get out of Dodge, and the song has everything you’d want for a long drive: Brock’s guitar lines blur past like a dream; Green's drumming jolts forward quickly and evenly like white dashes on a highway; and Judy's bass line runs calm and steady like an engine.

This thrumming coda becomes a kind of answer to Brock's anxiety.“Lounge,” which is, in turn, a noisy and frantic song about a man who shows up at a night club in a shiny suit and gets lost in the swirl before it suddenly switches gears and becomes a lugubrious drive. But towards what? Grace? Peace? Whatever it is, it feels both sweet and empty, devoid of the expectations that can turn even a sunset into a letdown.

But for all the calm on Long Drive there’s an equal amount of chaos. On “Tundra/Desert,” Green lurches hard enough to jump out of his skin and Brock’s one-note bends sound like screaming rockets. It's as if the calm landscapes from “Lounge” had exploded into the battlegrounds of hell. “Head South” starts pretty but, but it's also overloaded with voices: those of Brock, K Records boss Calvin Johnson and another singer named Nicole Johnson, who all sing over each other. But then, like “Lounge” but in reverse, it breaks down under the weight, de-evolving into an ugly lurch.

The idea always is a kind of purification through movement. On "Make Everyone Happy/Mechanical Birds," Brock crows, "I'm not sure who I am / I'm not sure who I am but I know who I've been." And anyone who’s lived a few years past the age of 20 knows that’s a feeling that never really dissipates. But Brock’s concerns are often and unsurprisingly unique to his strange, violent mind. (Have you ever read an interview with Isaac Brock? He just may be the most spiteful person in indie rock.)

"Beach Side Property" reveals all kinds of surreal concerns: towns shifting on the ground, beaches picking up and leaving and the barren earth falling into the ocean. Because so much of Brock's catharsis involves skimming on the edge of the earth, what what we feel here is real horror. It's like the ground is buckling under Brock's feet. He barely hangs on until the next droning, bashing musical passage. The genius of Long Drive is, finally, in how it vacillates between the approximation of Brock's careening psychoses and the benumbed movement that calms him.

The band's 1997 follow-up, The Lonesome Crowded West, further refined these two ideas, and then, with 2000's The Moon and Antarctica, Brock seemed to find a way to meld them into something that ponders the tumult of daily life in a kind of warm, detached cocoon. Brock became less concerned about breaking out of the confines than viewing them through a fuzzy lens, musing at hallucinations, wondering at stars and dancing in place. That was the key to palatability and success. Their 2004 album, Good News for People Who Love Bad News, sold more than a million copies, was nominated for a Grammy and brought the band mainstream success.

In the face of that, Long Drive still sounds totally alien. There's a precursor to Brock's apocalyptic roar in the Pixies, but no other band sounds quite like Modest Mouse with their structureless wanderings, rhythmic interplay and Brock's constant combustibility. But most of all, their distinctiveness and their longevity are both rooted in Brock's alchemy: He transmutes an asphyxiating anxiety and an addiction to movement into therapeutic music.

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