Some overlong records practically beg the listener to edit them down into a more manageable experience. For example, think of how most anyone that has ever owned a copy of the Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs has narrowed it down to a single disc of favorites, and how all of those customized mixes seem to differ from each other significantly. When albums include a large number of songs in a variety of styles, it's nearly inevitable that they seem uneven and test the patience of even the most generous fan. This is very much the case with Casper & the Cookies' third album, Modern Silence, which burns through 18 tracks in nearly 70 minutes, and invites serious listener fatigue despite the band's gift for writing songs with pleasant melodies and occasionally interesting textures.
Modern Silence starts strong with a handful of assured, well-constructed pop songs that establish the band's eclecticism and set a high bar for the rest of the album. After kicking off with the breezy glam rocker "Little King" and the casually groovy "You Love Me", the group veers off in a less accessible but more intriguing direction with "Pete Erchick Bicentennial Service Area", a peculiar, twitchy number that nods to a dozen strains of post-punk before ending on an inexplicable electric piano outro that sounds rather like "lite jazz" hold music. This is the band at their best-- leaning hard on familiar styles and sounds, but tweaking them with unexpected tones and tangents. "Sharp!", the next cut, applies a similarly eccentric trajectory to a funky, hyperactive tune that recalls some of the songs on of Montreal's The Sunlandic Twins, but after its abrupt conclusion, the record immediately hits a wall with the clunky, treacly ballad "Song Across The Sea". This is an unfortunate bit of sequencing, not simply for the way it kills the album's momentum, but in that it signals the record's uneven nature a bit too soon.
After this point, Modern Silence loses any sense of cohesion and begins to seem more like an arbitrarily sequenced playlist than an album. In the long middle phase of the record, the group offers diminishing returns on song forms already established in its first third. "Moldy Flower" is an amiable riff rocker, but lacks the easy charm of "Little King". "Cloud of Bees", though weirder and more melodically appealing than "Song Across the Sea", is no less of a mood-killer. The colorful, goofy jerkiness of "Sharp!" is echoed in "Little Lady Larva", but with the cloying wackiness of a second-rate children's song. This stretch is not a total drag, however. "Meredith", a track penned by songwriter Kay Stanton, comes off like a great lost 80s college-rock hit with a lead vocal falling somewhere between the deliveries of Barbara Manning and Kristen Hersh. Stanton also shines on the perky quasi-gospel number "Sunshine Girl".
Given that the greatest flaw of Modern Silence is its overlong duration, it's something of a surprise that the 15-minute epic that ends the record ranks among its best selections. "I Am Gone", a trippy audio collage encompassing elements of psychedelia, jazz, electronic pop, and all manner of madcap silliness, features 35 musicians, but no members of Casper & the Cookies. The composition is wildly indulgent but consistently engaging, moving from idea to idea with an enthusiasm and imagination lacking in too many of the tracks that precede it. When the group is more straightforward, their mild-mannered demeanor and competent professionalism come as a detriment to the songs, which take on the hollow catchiness of a mediocre musical theater approximation of rock music. Casper & the Cookies simply have more to offer when they make bolder decisions and push their songs to aesthetic extremes. Luckily, there is nothing to stop a listener from editing the sprawl of Modern Silence down to just those moments of inspiration.