When singer Joey Bruce left Winter Haven indie rock outfit Mouse Fire in early 2008, the band's guitarist, Shane Schuch, hit the ground running. With Bruce as frontman, they were signed to a hot indie label, Lujo Records, which had shepherded Floridians the Dark Romantics and Look Mexico to recognition, and were building interest from the major music festivals. A solid debut album, 2007's Wooden Teeth, helped matters, displaying a raw natural talent with dream-pop morsels like "To Celebrate a Suicide," a wondrous yet unassuming piece of head-in-the-clouds poetry propped up by layered guitar work from Schuch.
"I don't write about space or weird shit like that," says Schuch of Mouse Fire's previous incarnation. "I love space. I'll watch Discovery Channel for that. With Joey singing — loved his melodies, loved his voice. He just was kind of vague in his lyrics. You really couldn't understand what he was saying."
Schuch is not one for dwelling on the past. When Bruce made it clear he wanted to focus on his family life, Schuch stepped right up as the new frontman, and having already handled a good portion of the songwriting prior, he was ready for it.
At first, it seems that on Mouse Fire's sophomore effort, Big Emotion, releasing June 8, Schuch was perhaps too anxious to make Mouse Fire his own. From opener "Desert Woman" and especially the following track, "Don't Mess With a Texan," it's a jolt to hear Bruce's understated introvert replaced by Schuch's swaggering Pete Wentz affectations highlighted by off-putting xylophones, Walter Murphy-esque disco violins and a disturbing touch of Hall & Oates. By the time Schuch pelvic thrusts the couplet "Spoke a second language, was from El Paso/ She took my heart down like she was slingin' a lasso" on a song with the actual title "A Silly Boy From Tampa Bay," the whole production takes the shape of a practical joke gone horribly awry.
"The first half of the record, we did jam a lot in it," admits Schuch. "For some people who liked our first record, I think if they don't get it right off the top, if they give the record a chance, I think they might possibly really enjoy it if they let themselves. We're letting ourselves enjoy this change.
"There's really no metaphors on the record. You kind of know what's going on with each song and what we're trying to say."
Just when all hope sounds lost, however, the album shifts dramatically in both its artistic value and its evocation of the best moments of old Mouse Fire. The centerpiece of the change comes with "All My Friends," a justification of the album's first half, in the form of advice to the band's many musician friends. "You know that it's gonna take a lot of time/ We've got it and we won't stop until we top the charts/ Ah ha, what a joke," the band harmonize in a melancholic drone. We're still finding our voice, Schuch is saying in so many words. Don't worry. It's a shocking bit of fourth-wall busting that doesn't redefine what came before but certainly softens the listener for what comes next: an album-closing series of toned-down and introspective mid-tempo tracks standing in direct contradiction to the songs leading to that point.
"We do show off a bit more of the musical ability and I guess less of the quote-unquote hit factor," says Schuch. "I had a friend say, ‘Man, `"All My Friends"` sounds cocky. It's saying, "We got it, we've got what it takes."' Well, I've never heard a professional basketball player say he sucks. If he's in the playoffs, he knows he doesn't suck. We feel like we've got the talent to make a little chunk of change at this. I guess there's a couple of songs on that record that have that same message. We're just trying to be real, man."
While the mentality behind the second set of tracks might not have been different from what went into the first half, the quality is. Even the over-the-top instrumentation suits the later songs better: "Tic Toc"'s mariachi horns bring an unexpected poignancy, while the spooky background falsettos on "But It's Not What You Think" and closer "The One That Goes Away" humble the proceedings.
"We wanted to taper off the record with the last two songs," says Schuch. "This record was written from the stance that we're all musicians and we're struggling to keep going. Financially, it's a difficult time period and, emotionally, we all want to grow in our lives. We all want a lot more than what's going on right now. We see bigger things in our future.
"We don't want to be the musicians that had the talent, the ability, were able to write songs and people like us and stuff, but we can't seem to make a living. We don't want to be the ones that just give up."
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