Rock has been in a rut for years.

Most every band on the charts plays either hand-me-down punk, tired rap-rock or leftover grunge.

Even the most exciting and credible guitar band to hit big in the last few years – The White Stripes – draws on familiar blues and heavy-metal influences.

All of which makes the breakthrough of Modest Mouse a stirring anomaly.

Modest Mouse is just about the only group with an original, strange and blatantly uncommercial sound to bound up the current charts.

The band’s latest CD, “Good News for People Who Like Bad News,” has been sitting pretty in the 30s of Billboard’s Top 200 Album chart for the first five weeks of release. Last week, it bolted up to No. 23 with a bullet.

“Most bands go with a formula,” says Isaac Brock, the band’s 28-year-old leader. “We don’t have a formula.”

But they do have a song that captured the attention of modern rock radio programmers.

The single “Float On” has stayed in that format’s Top 20 for the last eight weeks, despite its weirdly disruptive rhythms, angular guitars and yelping vocals.

The only vaguely familiar element is Brock’s singing, which recalls the early outbursts of David Byrne.

“I’ll take the comparison,” Brock says. “I’m a big fan of his.”

Yet no other song on the album, or in the band’s canon, sounds quite like the single. In fact, many of Modest Mouse’s albums sound dramatically different from each other, employing a wide variety of instruments and moods.

This has held true since the band’s start more than a decade ago. They formed in Issaquah, Wash., near Seattle. But the group didn’t capitalize on the area’s grunge groundswell.

They released three low-radar albums, with offbeat titles like “The Fruit That Ate Itself,” then finally landed a major-label deal for 2000’s “The Moon & Antarctica.”

On the new CD, Brock incorporates more folk elements. These days he plays more banjo than guitar.

But he continues his pattern of writing densely worded, highly cryptic lyrics.

Brock can be clever, as on one track where he labels God “a control freak.” But much of the new album deals with heavier subjects, like the death of some people close to him.

He won’t be specific about whom.

“I don’t want to use it as fodder in the press,” Brock explains.

He’s more interested in challenging listeners with continuously new sounds, even as his band latches onto one that clicks commercially.

“We like to keep changing things to keep it interesting,” Brock says.

At least somebody is.

(c) 2004, New York Daily News.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.


PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099):


AP-NY-05-26-04 0853EDT

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