Dashboard (2007)

Modest Mouse

Written by Isaac Brock, Johnny Marr, Modest Mouse
What are DNA Source Songs™? Suggest a source song for inclusion via Rock Populi.

Dashboard Modest MouseEvidently Modest Mouse doesn’t travel well. The Washington State Indie band’s 2007 album We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank punched in at #1 in the United States, but elsewhere it stumbled. Maybe lack of proper promotion? It struggled to only #47 in the United Kingdom.

A number of very fine singles can be found on We Were Dead, but the standout in the Rock-N-Roll sphere is “Dashboard.”


Dire Straits: “The Sultans Of Swing”

It finds its roots in “Sultans Of Swing” by Dire Straits and in early Bowie work. There also are savory tastes of the music of artists like Elvis Costello (especially vocally), Nick Lowe, and there is Ska revival – well, sped up to warp speed, but there nonetheless. (Speaking of Lowe and his coterie back in Mother England, “Dashboard” does have a big dollop of Devonshire Cream in the “pure pop for now people” style of the early-’80s.)

And, whether the Mousers would like to hear this or not, there is plenty of Rock-A-Billy in “Dashboard,” which must have come in through the storm-cellar door up in Issaquah.

Dashboard Johnny Marr

Johnny Marr

From the beginning, Modest Mouse songwriter par excellence, Isaac Brock, had eccentric views on life that tilled new ground with each pass of the plow. His words are dripping with sardonic humor, impassioned sincerity and lots of word play. His songs are almost always entertaining and intriguing.

Mouse was joined by Johnny Marr, the British master guitarist from The Smiths and with Brock, the two hammered out “Dashboard” in short order. Marr played the music he had running round in his head for a while and Brock, says Marr, improvised the lyrics on the spot.

Even for Brock, the lyrics are innovative. Every verse opens with some variation on the theme: It would’ve been, could’ve been worse than…

The listener can’t be sure whether the song is about a relationship or existence in general, or a commentary on the entropy associated with car breakdowns. Regardless, their “Dashboard” is also inflected with a sort of optimism that says something like, “We should make do and try to find happiness even in less-than-fortunate circumstances.”

Well, it would’ve been, could’ve been
worse than you would ever know
Oh, the dashboard melted
but we still have the radio

Dashboard singleOh, 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
Well, the windshield was broken
but I love the fresh air you know
(The dashboard melted
but we still have the radio)

The music in back of the lyrics bips and bops as it opens, a pogo-stick approach, allowing a kind of Disco rhythm to establish itself (again, sardonic), redolent of The Stones’ Some Girl album, particularly “Respectable,” but also “Shattered.” It’s, um, yeah, Disco, but in the hands of real musicians who can bend and shape it the way a blacksmith does a horseshoe.

“Shattered” – The Rolling Stones

The band turns the heat up as the song progresses, Marr and Brock trading licks as Eric Judy massages his bass into an almost sexual frenzy.

Two drummers, Joe Plummer and Jeremiah Green, add some nice respectable fills but they are short on the insistence that the other players bring to the Mouse table. In live versions they sound infinitely better. Better drumming would have put the studio take of “Dashboard” into whatever Dashboard on stage modest mousehall of fame Indie songs go to.

Marr’s presence audibly improves an already outstanding band. “Dashboard” is a showcase for his slides and riffing ability. He sounds as if he’s ad-libbing the whole approach, dropping barbed-wire points here, sprinkling power runs there. And Marr forces Brock to higher heights as a guitarist.

Brock’s strongest suit is his lyrical ability, one that shows him to be polished and jagged in the same line. The “chorus” – the release hook – shakes out a few more tidbits:

Well we scheme and we scheme
but we always blow it
We’ve yet to crash 
but we still might as well tow it
Standing at a light switch to each
east and west horizon
Every dawn you’re surprising
and in the evening one’s consoling
Saying “See it wasn’t quite as bad as”
Well, it would’ve been, could’ve been
worse than you would ever know

In the last two lines we have the kernel in its shell concerning the meaning of the song. Brock’s a hard-nose with a soft heart.

Live hard, live fast, but always know, hey, it could have been much worse and so our experiences should be considered as good things – unless someone gets an eye poked out.

  • Britain’s New Musical Express honored Johnny Marr with its Godlike Genius award, hailing Marr as “not content with rewriting the history of music with one of the world’s greatest ever bands, The Smiths, he’s continued to push boundaries and evolve throughout his career, working with some of the best and most exciting artists on the planet.”
  • Isaac Brock is also a serious home chef, a matter about which he also can display his silly, off-handed sense of humor. He said once: “Try to remember this…my cooking is all based on a series of fuckups.”