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Mogwai Discographied Part Four: "It is better to be alive"

Mogwai's Mogwai EP

Mogwai EP – Matador, 1999

Highlights: “Stanley Kubrick,” “Burn Girl Prom Queen”

Overall: I realized something as I put on the Mogwai EP, which I’ve long heralded as one of their finest releases, shortly after listening to Come on Die Young, which I view as one of their biggest disappointments: They’re not all that different. Both releases emphasize lush arrangements and measured tempos over striking dynamic shifts and orgiastic guitar ecstasy. From a distance, the Mogwai EP resembles that dreaded tract of mid-tempo songs that bogs down the middle of Come on Die Young. Yet now it’s grand instead of tedious. Mogwai returned to my mental picture of Come on Die Young as a dreary, grey November afternoon and changed the seasons, opting for early spring or late fall.

How did they do it? Simple: the lush arrangements are now central to the songs. Whereas the horn arrangements on “Helps Both Ways” could have been dropped (and were absent on the original No Education version), the horns on “Burn Girl Prom Queen” are essential. The piano, guitar, and bass create a fine base underneath, but those horns make the eight minutes float by. Similarly, I can’t fathom “Stanley Kubrick” without its pedal steel melody or the evocative whirring texture of the keyboards. Those elements generate the song’s indelible sense of melancholy. “Christmas Song” starts out solely with piano, bringing guitar harmonics and canned strings in to supplement this foundation, but I find myself focusing on the piano. Perhaps the most stunning aspect of Mogwai EP’s success is how the only song with a noisy pay-off, the accurately titled “Rage: Man,” is the least satisfying track here. It’s still a carefully crafted song that fits in well with the three which proceed it, but how times have changed when I’m wishing for more lush, mid-tempo material.

As I mentioned with both 4 Satin and No Education = No Future (Fuck the Curfew), you will rarely encounter just the four songs discussed above on the Mogwai EP. Matador’s US pressing was EP+2, placing “Rollerball” and “Small Children in the Background” from No Education after “Rage: Man.” The Japanese pressing and Chemikal Underground reissue is EP + 6, arranging the three EPs in chronological order. Logistically, EP + 6 is the way to go (currently $13.50 at Parasol), but personally, I prefer how EP + 2 concludes with “Small Children.” Either way, I rank these three EPs above a few of Mogwai’s LPs, so don’t miss out on them. Certainly listen to each on its own accord, however, since this chronological discussion stressed just how important each EP was to that stage of Mogwai’s development.

Mogwai's Travels in Constants

Travels in Constants, Volume 12 – Temporary Residence Limited, 2001

Highlight: “Untitled”

Overall: Subscription-only series used to be a big deal. The Sub Pop Singles Club helped put that label on the map in 1988—even if Nirvana’s Bleach and subsequent trickle-down Geffen money draped that map in flannel—and roughly a decade later, Temporary Residence Limited’s two subscription series put them on an admittedly much smaller map. Sounds for the Geographically Challenged featured artists like Songs: Ohia, The For Carnation, Fuck, and The Sonora Pine—not huge names in the indie rock universe, but respectable nonetheless. The subsequent Travels in Constants series scored coups with Papa M, Will Oldham, Low, and Mogwai. TRL’s own Eluvium, Explosions in the Sky, and Mono helped close out the series in 2007. Sure, stellar albums like Tarentel’s From Bone to Satellite (which compares admirably to the vast majority of Mogwai’s catalog) helped solidify TRL’s own stable of artists along the way, but it’s impossible to diminish the importance of these series, especially Travels in Constants, for the label’s ultimate success.

Such series are built upon the intoxicating sense of exclusivity. Maybe there’s a band in the queue that’s one of your favorites and you need every last song they release. Maybe you’re interested in making a killing on eBay. Maybe—ideally—you’re intrigued by the label’s sense of direction and want to hear a consistent stream of its chosen tunes. Whatever the justification, these subscriptions allow labels the guaranteed capital to get off the ground, associate bigger names in the genre with them, and encourage you to check out the non-subscription titles. The biggest hurdle is the lump-sum price, something I was never willing or able to pay, but fortunately a few titles slipped through to touring artists like Mogwai.

As romantic as I make these subscription series out to be, such releases are frequently a dumping ground for lesser material. Think about it from the artist’s perspective: are you going to give some up-and-coming label your best new tracks or are you going to save them for your next album? The vast majority of groups will use the subscription release as a chance to clear out their closet or perhaps try a new direction. While I enjoy all three tracks on Mogwai’s Travels in Constants, I can’t argue that this EP is comprised of their top material.

The gentle “Untitled” is the best of the bunch, a pleasant six minutes of floating guitar noise, nonchalant la-la-las, and inviting keyboard and flute melodies laid over a steady beat. If you’re hoping for tension, look elsewhere, but “Untitled” is a welcome addition to the Sunday afternoon playlist. The other two songs are immediately recognizable as b-sides: there’s a “quiet” version of “Stereodee” from the 4 Satin EP and a cover of Papa M’s “Arundel.” The former replaces the reverbed guitar of the original take with a graceful piano. It’s an intriguing trade-off, but not revelatory. Choosing to cover Papa M is a bit curious—yes, David Pajo was in Slint, but as Papa M he’s Mogwai’s peer. “Arundel” lacks the bravado and history of their earlier Black Sabbath, Guns ‘n’ Roses, and Spacemen 3 covers, but the end result is a stately bit of piano to close out the EP.

Perhaps Mogwai’s Travels in Constants nails the quality vs. exclusivity debate on the head. If you’re a Mogwai fan willing to hunt down a long out-of-print EP, these three songs offer a nice enough reward. If you’re less dedicated, you’re not missing out on anything essential. And if you subscribed and don’t care about Mogwai, you just made some money on eBay.