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Mogwai Discographied Part Three: A Big Load of Trashy Old Noise

This is the third entry into the Mogwai Discographied series. Part one covers Ten Rapid and 4 Satin, part two covers Young Team and Kicking a Dead Pig / Mogwai Fear Satan Remixes. Today we move onto the excellent 1998 No Education = No Future (Fuck the Curfew) EP and their disappointing 1999 LP Come on Die Young.

Mogwai's No Education = No Future (Fuck the Curfew) EP

No Education = No Future (Fuck the Curfew) – Chemikal Underground, 1998

Highlights: “Xmas Steps,” “Small Children in the Background”

Low Points: The absence of the original version of “Helps Both Ways”

Overall: Saying “I prefer the earlier version of that track” is one of the go-to retorts for musical elitists like myself, since it’s often a passive-aggressive fuck-off to anyone who wasn’t there first. Nevertheless, there can be an underlying logic to such preferences. Sometimes a song sounds fresher, more inspired on its first recorded take. Sometimes the initial production values fit the track better. Sometimes listeners grow accustomed to the particular cues of the original take and never quite settle in with the newer version. No Education = No Future (Fuck the Curfew) presents two separate instances of this phenomenon.

The promo pressing of No Education = No Future offered three songs—“Xmas Steps,” “Rollerball,” and “Helps Both Ways”—but met legal issues before its proper release. “Helps Both Ways” featured a recording of Pat Summerall and John Madden calling an NFL game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Green Bay Packers, and sure enough, the network, the league, and the announcers take that message about “no rebroadcast without express written consent” rather seriously, even when it pertains to Scottish post-rock.

It’s a shame, since this original take of “Helps Both Ways” feels more natural than the one which appears on Come on Die Young. The familiar voices of Summerall and Madden, covering a drive helmed by Green Bay’s Brett Farve, could have drifted through the speakers from any languid Sunday afternoon in the mid-to-late 1990s. The specificity of this recording gives an impromptu feeling to the song, like Mogwai’s playing a moody, slow-core jam along to the television in between takes. In contrast, the comparatively anonymous sample from the CODY version almost immediately fades into the background behind more prominent drums and newly added horns. Given that you’ll have to download this original take of “Helps Both Ways” (cough cough) to hear it in the context of No Education, only a remarkably narrow segment of the audience would be affected by the switch, but this version was one of my first MP3s and I could never make the switch to the subsequent CODY take.

Getting back to the regularly scheduled programming, the EP’s lead-off track, the eleven-minute “Xmas Steps,” immediately gained its rightful status as one of Mogwai’s finest epics alongside “Helicon One,” “Like Herod,” and “Mogwai Fear Satan.” It patiently progresses from quiet calm to foreboding doom, from chaotic distortion back to violin-assuaged reserve. This savage dynamic range is a touchstone of the genre, but “Xmas Steps” pulls it off with a rare grace.

Much like “Helps Both Ways,” “Xmas Steps” was re-recorded for Come on Die Young (as “Christmas Steps”), and sure enough, I still prefer the No Education version. It’s a much harder argument to make, since the CODY version has crisper production and a tighter performance, but it loses the original take’s spaciousness and austerity.

If you’re sick of this version control, don’t worry: “Rollerball” is too slight of a song to earn alternate takes. It’s certainly pleasant—a crescendo-free slowcore piano ballad—but not especially memorable. You know what’s more memorable? That steaming turd of a remake of Rollerball from 2002. It’s bad news when Chris Klein and LL Cool J are expected to carry a movie.

Closing track “Small Children in the Background,” however, is memorable in the good way. A hazy lullaby with crests of whirring distortion, anchored by an affecting arpeggio, “Small Children” is one of music’s greatest consolation prizes. Mogwai being ready to slot such a great track into the EP after the legal mess over “Helps Both Ways” is rather astonishing. Much like “Superheroes of BMX,” it’s a b-side that ranks among their finest tracks.

No Education = No Future (Fuck the Curfew) may seem like a mere footnote now, given that all three tracks from the proper pressing have been added to EP + 6, but it’s hard for me not to think of how perfectly this EP maintained the momentum from Young Team. (Much like how Shiner’s Sub Pop single [“Sleep It Off” b/w “Half Empty”] did the same following Lula Divinia.) It’s not an album-length statement, but “Xmas Steps” and “Small Children in the Background” are two Mogwai classics, and the stylistic consistency for either version of the EP is impressive.

Mogwai's Come on Die Young

Come on Die Young – Matador, 1999

Highlights: “Cody,” “Ex-Cowboy,” “Christmas Steps,” “Chocky”

Low Points: “Year 2000 Non-Compliant Cardia,” “May Nothing but Happiness Come Through Your Door”

Overall: By the time that Come on Die Young came out in late March of 1999 (I remember the release and purchase very clearly), my Mogwai fandom was in full bloom. I’d heard a third of the album in alternate takes (“Xmas Steps” and “Helps Both Ways” from the preceding No Education = No Future (Fuck the Curfew) EP, “Cody” and “Kappa” from Peel Sessions) prior to picking up the album. I’d tracked down the aforementioned EPs and remix CDs. I was ready for another fantastic LP. Unfortunately, Come on Die Young couldn’t top Young Team.

Initially I wasn’t disappointed by Mogwai’s sophomore effort. Perhaps my prevailing misery at the time jibed with the plodding pace of the album and the absence of Young Team’s vibrant colors. But time has not been kind to Come on Die Young’s standing in Mogwai’s ever-expanding catalog. It certainly has higher production values than Young Team, but calling them better is a stretch. Producer Dave Fridmann (Mercury Rev, Flaming Lips) gives the drums a touch of the Soft Bulletin treatment and adds horns and strings, but it's such a specific sonic palette. Beyond my four favorite songs—“Cody,” “Ex-Cowboy,” “Chocky,” and “Christmas Steps,” which would have made a 36-minute mini LP—there’s a glut of mid-tempo tracks that can’t quite fill the void of dynamic range with a proper level of emotional resonance. You know that feeling in mid November when all of the leaves have fallen off the trees, the ground’s grey and frozen, and yet there’s no snow to be seen? That’s my visual picture of Come on Die Young. Sometimes I feel like November in New England, but most of the time I gaze out the window, hoping for the season to change.

At 67:32, Come on Die Young is only three minutes longer than Young Team, but it feels like so much more of an ordeal. Opening track “Punk Rock” is built around a passage from a 1977 Iggy Pop interview (somehow not this bizarre appearance), in which he claims “Punk rock is a word used by dilettantes and heartless manipulators about music that takes up the energies and the bodies and the hearts and the souls and the time and the minds of young men.” It’s not that dissimilar from the recitation of a show preview leading off “Yes! I Am a Long Way from Home” on Young Team, but there’s no lightness, no joy to follow in the song. It’s measured and serious. At least it’s an accurate signal for what’s to come.

The next song, “Cody,” is one of the album’s highlights. A rare unaltered Stuart Braithwaite vocal, “Cody” is a country-ish take on the careful ballads of slowcore bands like Low, Codeine, and Galaxie 500, with a hint of the druggy vibe of Spacemen 3 (whose “Honey” Mogwai covered and included on the Young Team reissue). The lyrics are quietly affecting—“Old songs stay till the end / Sad songs remind me of friends / And the way it is, I could leave it all / And I ask myself, would you care at all”—which makes me wonder why so few Mogwai songs take this approach. The lap steel guitar is an essential addition, a marvelous extension of the glockenspiel and flute touches from Young Team. It should be no surprise this song remains in their set lists.

The next six tracks are patience-testing, mid-tempo plodders. If they’d been spread around the album and trimmed by one or two, the casual beauty of “Helps Both Ways” and “Waltz for Aidan” would be stand-outs, but instead they’re lumped into this tedious exercise. It’s a 27-minute block without a significant crescendo. I fully understand that post-rock can succeed without wall-shaking bursts of noise, but the tense strumming of “Year 2000 Non-Compliant Cardia,” “Kappa,” and “May Nothing but Happiness Come Through Your Door” is a brutal tease of an anti-payoff. If you’re going to repeat a trick, make it a good one.

The next three songs salvage Come on Die Young to a certain extent, but they also represent another critical sequencing error: the album’s three longest (and best) songs come in a row. “Ex-Cowboy” rides its mesmerizing bass line through two crescendos of blistering guitar noise. Do you know how much I missed blistering guitar noise? So very much. “Chocky” locates an elongated piano-driven mid-tempo track within the welcome haze of atmospheric noise. And “Christmas Steps,” best version or not, is still a jaw-dropping execution of post-rock’s most primal notions. The woozy two-minute closer “Punk Rock / Puff Daddy / Antichrist” is a drifting recapitulation of the opening track. It makes structural sense but isn’t essential.

Mogwai followed the wrong instincts in by mirroring Young Team’s length but not its balanced structure and varied songwriting. It’s hard not to wonder what might have been, especially after encountering the working track listing for Come on Die Young on the long-running Mogwai fan site Bright Light: “Chocky / “Cody” / Untitled / “Ex-Cowboy” / “Christmas Steps” / “Punk Rock” / “Helps Both Ways” / Untitled. Three specific songs were mentioned as possible b-sides—“Kappa,” “Waltz for Aidan,” and “Oh! How the Dogs Stack Up”—all of which were eventually placed within the mid-album bloat. Envisioning Come on Die Young as a single album with better pacing and fewer mid-tempo tracks is tantalizing, making me itch to revive that Stylus Magazine meme Playing God. (Ian Mathers did one for Young Team and it’s hard for me to control my rage over it right now. Breathe. Breathe.) Yet their next three full-lengths demonstrate that there’s a certain appeal to the unbridled sprawl of Young Team and Come on Die Young. The grass is always greener on the other side in Glasgow.

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