Believe it or not, I'm deadset on finishing this Discographied run soon and moving onto my next selection. If you'd like to catch up, part one covers Ten Rapid and the 4 Satin EP, part two covers Young Team and Kicking a Dead Pig / Mogwai Fear Satan Remixes, part three covers the No Education = No Future (Fuck the Curfew) EP and Come on Die Young, part four covers the Mogwai EP and their entry in the Travels in Constants series, and part five covers Rock Action and My Father My King. This entry covers the disappointing, if not disastrous Happy Songs for Happy People and the pleasantly surprising Government Commissions: BBC Sessions 1996-2003
Happy Songs for Happy People – Matador, 2003
Highlights: “Stop Coming to My House,” “Hunted by a Freak”
Low Points: “Boring Machines Disturb Sleep”
Overall: I had a very, very brief stint writing for Stylus back in 2003, highlighted by a takedown of Liz Phair’s disastrous eponymous effort and done in by the boneheaded decision to review 57 lingering promos from the Signal Drench days (which remains one of my favorite pieces I've done). One of the few new albums I reviewed was Happy Songs for Happy People, which I gave a B-, claiming that “These Happy Songs are fine, but […] praising competence is a backhanded compliment. The highlights would be far better suited to lesser status on a great album, and turning away from the impressive vocal performances of Rock Action to fully retreat into vocoders and hushed mumbling is a step backwards.” I stand by both the grade and the sentiment (skip down four paragraphs for more detail), but there’s an interesting wrinkle. As Stylus often did, there was a second review published for the album, in which Olav Bjortomt awarded it an A. That’s not surprising—certain people claim that Happy Songs is the group’s best album—but it’s not consistent with his back-and-forth throughout the review.
Bjortomt’s review starts off with the admission that every Mogwai album, barring Ten Rapid, disappoints him. Then admits, “They're my favourite band.” After finding the flaws in Mogwai’s first three full-lengths, he comes clean: “At the time I gave the last two glowing write-ups when reviewing them. I was wrong on both counts. I had let my loyalty afflict my impartiality.” This time he vows, “I will cast a cold, unflinching eye” and proclaims, “This is set filler for the new tour.” After praising every single track, he goes broad again: “Mogwai have an album in them, capable of delighting and shocking us, of smashing our craniums in and injecting heroin in our mushed-up brains, then chucking us in a filthy ditch, left to gaze in retarded wonder at the fireworks exploding in the brooding sky.” He realizes that their eventual greatest hits compilation, which he titles “ The Greatest Fucking Record That Kicked Your Ass and Stroked Your Head Like a Puppy,” will be that album. Bjortomt concludes, “Happy Songs is a great album, but not THE great Mogwai album.”
And yet, still an A.
I’ve gone through Bjortomt’s waffling not to show him up or claim review supremacy seven years later, but to empathize with him. When reviewing your absolute favorite band, it’s nearly impossible to prevent loyalty from affecting impartiality—even when you know better. When I reviewed Shiner’s Starless for Signal Drench, I gave it the five-star treatment. With time, I recognized that Starless was a transitional album for the group. Every time I’ve written about Juno’s A Future Lived in Past Tense, which still stands as my favorite album ever, I consciously avoid mentioning how I view the atmospheric short story reading “Things Gone and Things Still Here (We’ll Need the Machine Guns by Next March)” as an optional piece of the track listing. I’m loyal to both of these bands, too loyal for immediate critical impartiality. Bjortomt’s review is a compelling document of this process. Even when he recognizes the album’s flaws, it’s still an A album. “It’s a Mogwai album,” after all.
And finally I’ll get back to that very statement. As the pull quotes from both reviews have established, Happy Songs for Happy People isn’t an album of hall-of-fame material, but it has its charms. Only two of its songs—“Hunted by a Freak” and “I Know You Are but What Am I”—made the live album Special Moves, which is the closest thing the band’s released to a greatest hits compilation, and neither is of the jaw-dropping epic variety. Breaking the album down, there’s an affecting vocoder-driven song in “Hunted,” two minimal, subtle synth-fests in “Moses I Amn’t” and “Boring Machines Disturb Sleep,” a lush mid-tempo song in “Golden Porsche,” a layered piano ballad in “I Know You Are,” one eight-minute epic in “Ratts of the Capital,” which crests admirably but never goes into Mogwai’s top gear, and three condensed takes on the Mogwai epic: “Kids Will Be Skeletons,” “Killing All the Flies,” “Stop Coming to My House.” It’s a tight 42 minute album with a few relative highs and no major missteps. To revive a confounding bit of grade hedging I learned back in graduate school, I’ll bump my previous score up to a B-/B.
Government Commissions: BBC Sessions 1996-2003 – Matador, 2005
Highlights: “Like Herod,” “Secret Pint,” “Cody,” “Stop Coming to My House”
Low Points: “Kappa,” “Hunted by a Freak”
Overall: This non-comprehensive collection of BBC sessions occupies a curious spot in Mogwai’s discography. Is it their first official live album? Not quite—many of these performances display the control of an in-studio session. Is it a collection of alternate takes? Almost—some songs certainly vary from their original versions, even improving upon them in a few instances, but others are carefully recreated. Is it a best-of sampler? Not without versions of “Mogwai Fear Satan,” “2 Rights Make 1 Wrong,” and “Stanley Kubrick.” Government Commissions is somewhere between these three points, offering newcomers a sampling of Mogwai’s work and existing fans fresh takes of songs they know.
It begins with the voice of the sadly departed John Peel ushering in “Hunted by a Freak.” It’s a fine version of one of the highlights from Happy Songs for Happy People, but along with Come on Die Young’s “Kappa,” it’s one of the least surprising (and therefore least necessary) versions here. Young Team’s “R U Still in 2 It” pulls the easy trick of removing Aidan Moffat’s vocals and going instrumental, but its drifting outro is downright lovely. Ten Rapid’s “New Paths to Helicon (Part II)” goes pro, exchanging the minimal presentation of the original version for a more elegant, piano-laden approach. After the shrugging version of “Kappa,” Mogwai keeps with Come on Die Young for a pitch-perfect take on “Cody.”
To this point, Government Commissions has been remarkably reserved, hitting only the chorus crescendo of “Hunted by a Freak,” but the live version of Young Team’s mammoth “Like Herod” takes little time to send out its hulking riffs. There’s no shortage of live versions of “Like Herod” in Mogwai’s catalog—see also the deluxe edition of Young Team, the Travel Is Dangerous EP, and the live album Special Moves—but this take is the keeper. The first time I saw Mogwai was September 10, 1999 at the Metro in Chicago and they closed with “Like Herod.” The trick wasn’t going quiet then loud, but making the loud progressively louder to the point of discomfort. By the end of the song, Stuart Braithwaite had two drum sticks and an action figure lodged in his guitar. Despite the brazen stupidity of not wearing earplugs, I loved every second of that performance, pumping my fist in the air as those wiser individuals around me covered their ears in panic. Unlike the studio version of “Like Herod,” the Government Commissions version gives you a taste of that terrifying torrent of noise. (Necessary postscript: both my ride, the esteemed Jared Dunn, and I felt downright disoriented after the show, which resulted in an disastrous journey back to Champaign. It’s a bad sign when you realize you’re in the wrong state. This anecdote has now become outdated in the age of GPS.)
It amuses me that “Secret Pint” follows such a monumental performance, much like it did on Rock Action, but here the song is up to the task. The instrumental balance is much improved, adding harmonics, downplaying the drums, turning the woozy strings into an affecting cello performance, and smoothing things over with a blissful hum reminiscent of Ten Rapid. What was one of my least favorite songs on Rock Action becomes one of my favorites here.
“Superheroes of BMX” from the 4 Satin EP makes a welcome appearance, not straying too far from the course of the original but finding new streaks of noise to run across the placid baseline. “New Paths to Helicon (Part One)” hits new heights of distorted bliss, extending the superb original take for another two minutes. And closing track “Stop Coming to My House” from Happy Songs for Happy People feels unleashed here, trading the production subtleties of the original for direct power.
The only downside to Government Commissions is the “non-comprehensive” tag I mentioned earlier. Being favorites of John Peel meant that Mogwai appeared a number of times, documented quite well on this site. It’s unfortunate that the links for that site’s unofficial Government Commissions 2 no longer work, since those excluded songs are still worth hearing. The biggest omission from the original compilation is a cover of Guns ‘n’ Roses’ “Don’t Cry” recorded for the February 17, 1998 show. Along with “Spoon Test,” which morphed into the middle section of “May Nothing but Happiness Come Through Your Door,” it’s the only song that didn’t appear elsewhere. Plus, Stuart Braithwaite’s earnest, emotional vocal and the rousing solo both stand up.
Frankly I’d forgotten how good Government Commissions is. The first half of the album and “Secret Pint” demonstrate Mogwai’s quieter side as well as any of their albums, while “Like Herod,” “Helicon (Part One),” and “Stop Coming to My House” show off the energy of their live sets. No, it’s not a proper live album, a collection of thoroughly alternate takes, or a best-of compilation, but it combines aspects of each to claim its place as a necessary piece of Mogwai’s catalog.