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Mogwai Discographied Part Five: Spaceships over Glasgow

Mogwai's Rock Action

Rock Action – Matador, 2001

Highlights: “2 Rights Make One Wrong,” “Sine Wave,” “Dial: Revenge,” “You Don’t Know Jesus”

Low Points: “Robot Chant,” “Secret Pint”

Overall: Rock Action marks the start of a new era for Mogwai LPs. Gone are the hour-long runtimes. Rock Action clocks in at a tidy thirty-eight minutes. Its eight songs include a pair of minute-long snippets: the back-masked piano ballad “O I Sleep” and the industrial fuzz of “Robot Chant.” Subtract those and you’ve got six songs, thirty-six minutes. I can’t help but think of other albums in the “six songs, roughly forty minutes” club: Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock, Slint’s Spiderland, Rodan’s Rusty, and Tortoise’s Millions Now Living Will Never Die. You were so close, Mogwai. So close.

Decrease in runtime isn’t the only major change. Of the six full tracks, five of them have vocals of some sort (frequently hidden in a vocoder). Only “You Don’t Know Jesus” qualifies as “rocking.” “Sine Wave” has squelching electronic noise reminiscent of IDM. “2 Rights Make 1 Wrong” has prominent banjo, strings, and brass, and concludes with a four-person choral arrangement. This emphasis on additional instrumentation didn’t happen overnight. Dave Fridmann applied horns and strings to Come on Die Young. These elements became central parts of their songs on the Mogwai EP. But on Rock Action, these decisions steer songs in new directions.

The songs are still Mogwai songs, though. A top-down view of “Sine Wave” shows a gradual crescendo, even if its sonic profile is nothing like “Yes! I Am a Long Way from Home.” The throbbing drums, muffled vocals, and buried melodies of “Sine Wave” may sound little like what came before them, but the effect is still the same. “Take Me Somewhere Nice” revives an atypical Mogwai blueprint—the vocal-driven slow-core of “Cody”—and weaves horns and strings around a regretful Stuart Braithwaite vocal. Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys helms “Dial: Revenge,” layering Welsh vocals around acoustic guitars and yearning strings. If not for the familiar emotional palette, you might wonder which band recorded that song. “You Don’t Know Jesus” reorients the listener back into the world of dimly lit instrumental rock, recalling Come on Die Young’s excellent “Ex-Cowboy.” What it lacks in surprises it makes up for in craftsmanship—few of Mogwai’s dynamic rock songs are this carefully planned and precisely executed.

Those four songs would comprise a very nice EP, but Rock Action becomes a bona-fide full-length with its penultimate song, “2 Rights Make 1 Wrong.” Like “Mogwai Fear Satan” on Young Team, “2 Rights” comprises a quarter of Rock Action’s runtime. I mentioned the song’s instrumental arrangement earlier—banjo, strings, brass, electronics, vocoder, a four-part chorus—but what I didn’t emphasize is the effect of all of these pieces. “2 Rights Make 1 Wrong” hits several awe-inspiring peaks—the rousing brass crescendo in the song’s first half, the quiet mingling of Barry Burns’ vocodered voice and the insistent banjo melody in the song’s introspective valley, and the unexpected beauty of the crossing voices in the choral outro. Here’s the amazing part: none of them are guitar-driven. Credit producer Dave Fridmann for pulling all of these pieces together, but also credit Mogwai for recognizing a simple fact: these moments all sound better with this alternate instrumentation. The song is still fantastic in the guitar-driven live setting, but as a studio recording, it ranks at the very top of Mogwai’s best work.

Rock Action closes with “Secret Pint,” which lingers in the wake of “2 Rights Make 1 Wrong.” Don’t expect guitars to dominate here, either. Stuart Braithwaite’s mumbled vocal, up-front drums, lingering piano, and occasional strings all take precedence over the quietly strummed guitars. My preference would be to close Rock Action with the uplifting finale of “2 Rights Make 1 Wrong,” not give it a reserved coda. It certainly is strange that once I finish praising Fridmann for his superb job elevating “2 Rights Make 1 Wrong” with his production touches, “Secret Pint” feels overwhelmed by them. I greatly prefer the version included on Government Commissions, but I’ll get to that one later.

Rock Action ranks as my second favorite Mogwai full-length behind Young Team. I can certainly understand the logical slights against the album—it’s close to EP length, it doesn’t feature as much guitar rock as their other albums, the emphasis on vocals gets them away from their usual strengths—but for the most part, I view each of those points as a blessing. The last thing I wanted following Come on Die Young was another sprawl-heavy double album. After the excellent Mogwai EP, I recognized Mogwai’s capacity to write music that didn’t require a crescendo into distorted guitar to succeed. Songs like “Cody,” “R U Still in 2 It,” and “Tuner” demonstrated Mogwai’s aplomb for a variety of vocal approaches, so the array of voices on Rock Action isn’t some unforeseen outlier. It certainly doesn’t hurt that one of my two favorite Mogwai songs, “2 Rights Make 1 Wrong,” holds the album together. It’s the start of a new era of shorter, tighter Mogwai albums, but it stands apart from Happy Songs for Happy People and Mr. Beast in quality and approach.

Despite this praise, I have a major qualifier for Rock Action: don’t start here. Know the norms first so you can appreciate how Rock Action deviates from them (precisely what post-rock should do). Check out Young Team, Mogwai EP, and one of the live compilations, then come to Rock Action and it’ll be a breath of fresh air.

Mogwai's My Father My King

My Father My King – Matador, 2001

Overall: Warning: The majority of this entry on Mogwai’s “My Father My King” is a screed against the production values/decisions for the song. Let me not forget to emphasize that “My Father My King” is a completely badass, inspired song that you definitely need to hear in some capacity. If not for those production issues, it would be firmly among “Mogwai Fear Satan” and “2 Rights Make 1 Wrong” in the holy trinity of Mogwai epics. Now let the diatribe begin.

I rarely take issue with Steve Albini’s engineering jobs. He’s done absolutely perfect work on albums like the Jesus Lizard’s Goat, Silkworm’s Firewater, Shellac’s At Action Park and The Forms’ self-titled LP. You know what you’re going to get with Albini: a remarkable replication of what it’s like to be in the room while the band is playing. Whether that result fits a band’s sound, however, is the rub. Two conditions have to be met: first, you have to sound good in the room, i.e. be a “tight” live band; second, it’s best if you don’t use the studio as an instrument, Eno-style. It’s the second condition where My Father My King falls short, which is an ironic turn of events.

An emphasis on the “studio as an instrument” approach is the defining aspect of producer Dave Fridmann’s stint behind the boards for Mogwai’s previous two full-lengths. What works so well for the Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, and the Delgados—an up-front drum sound, space for additional instrumentation like horns and strings, electronic flourishes—has mixed results for Mogwai. Sometimes it excels (“Cody,” “Sine Wave,” especially “2 Rights Make 1 Wrong”), sometimes it overwhelms the song (“Helps Both Ways,” “Secret Pint”). My general feeling is that Mogwai were pushed too close to the orchestral rock of Fridmann’s usual clientele, a movement away from their core identity as a guitar-rock band. “My Father My King” is a response to that, a twenty-minute reassurance that they are, in fact, a guitar-rock band, even if its initial potential looked past that distinction.

I first heard “My Father My King” on a webcast of the group’s All Tomorrow’s Parties performance from 2000 (download the mp3 of that performance here). Bolstered by a string trio, Mogwai added another dynamic, eardrum-crushing epic to their repertoire. Basing the song’s melody on the Jewish prayer Avinu Malkeinu (“Our Father Our King”), Mogwai strayed from their usual melodic progressions and gave the adapted hymn an apocalyptic resonance, especially when those strings picked up. The guitars did much of the heavy lifting, taking over the song for stretches, but it was the presence and prominence of the string section that hooked me, offering counter-melodies that pierced through the thick cloud of distortion. When they picked up the main melody over the rumbling noise of the song’s outro, gradually falling more and more out of tune, I couldn’t help but wonder how jaw-dropping it would sound not coming from RealPlayer. Nevertheless, I played that cached stream on a near-constant loop for months.

The one-track CD single for “My Father My King” (hear the first part on YouTube) came out six months after Rock Action. Most reviews were positive, calling it a perfect companion piece for the atypically reserved Rock Action and the monolith that album was lacking (you know, if “2 Rights Make 1 Wrong” doesn’t count). I took it a different way: Steve Albini sucked the life out of this song.

That’s not a fair statement, since Albini did what Albini does: replicate the sound in the room. The guitars and bass sound downright venomous, undulating in waves of writhing distortion. The drums sound fine, but Martin Bulloch isn’t as forceful as Albini regulars like Silkworm’s Michael Dahlquist (rest in peace), Shellac’s Todd Trainer, or the Jesus Lizard’s Mac McNeilly. The problem is with the string section. Regular Mogwai collaborators Caroline Barber (cello) and Luke Sutherland (violin) must’ve been set up down the hall, since their presence on the track is so greatly diminished from that All Tomorrow’s Parties performance.

Here’s where Albini’s distinction as an engineer, not a producer, comes into play. As an engineer, he sees Barber and Sutherland walk into the studio, mics their instruments, and records their performance. An engineer wouldn’t insist on multi-tracking the strings for added prominence, bringing in an additional string quartet, or contracting a local orchestra. A producer, on the other hand, might suggest those possibilities. A producer like Dave Fridmann, perhaps? I suspect that a Fridmann recording of “My Father My King” would have the opposite problem of Albini’s take. Yes, the strings would be more prominent, but the guitars wouldn’t have the bite of Albini’s recording. “My Father My King” would not work if it sounded anything like the Flaming Lips or Mercury Rev.

The point of releasing “My Father My King” separate from Rock Action was to show a separate side of Mogwai, the dissonant, noisy side, and to their credit, that’s what Albini’s version does. What the All Tomorrow’s Parties performance, out-of-tune strings and all, argues is that showing one side or the other of Mogwai’s aesthetic profile precludes the possibility of showing both sides. I want the nasty guitar noise, but I also want the bombast of a prominent string section. If you’re recording a twenty-minute-long instrumental with apocalyptic overtones, why hold back? Were they afraid of sounding too much like Godspeed You Black Emperor? Maybe I’m spoiled by the resonance of the first version I heard (it wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened with Mogwai), but I find myself going back to that version. The point that shouldn’t be overlooked (hence the preface to this entry) is that I am going back to some version, proving that “My Father My King” remains one of Mogwai’s most impressive compositions.

An interesting postscript to this discussion of Mogwai’s production values. They haven’t gone back to a name producer / engineer since “My Father My King,” choosing to record their next four official LPs and the Zidane soundtrack with fellow Scotsmen Tony Doogan, Andy Miller, and Paul Savage (the former drummer of the Delgados who’s also done excellent work with Aereogramme, Arab Strap, and the Twilight Sad). Miller and Savage handled Young Team and much of the other early Mogwai material. Mogwai also built their own studio, Castle of Doom, and have done recording and/or mixing for their most recent albums in it. While I mostly enjoy the production values that these three men have brought to the more recent Mogwai material, I do wonder what they’d sound like with a more hands-on producer brought into the fold.

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