Thursday, March 30, 2017

One Last Pick Thru the Bins Volume 20: Mogwai, The Comforts of Pop Versus the Post-Rock Wilds

GUYS...see the lines, follow the rules, plz.
The super-(super-)majority of pop songs use one of several combinations of verses and choruses as a frame for the song. That basic, broad structure has held for well over a century. The most common arrangement goes, “verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, verse, chorus,” or at least that’s what comes to mind after one full second’s thought. Songwriters probably break that convention all the time, but it’s the familiarity of the form that I’m highlighting here.

Music contributes to both the verse and chorus, of course, in that there’s a score for each of those sections, a repetitive one, usually, but there’s another regular component as well: words. Yes, most pop songs have lyrics. Moreover, a hell of a lot of artists arrange those lyrics in a way that lends them to easy recall and repetition, that get them lodged so insidiously into your brain that you’ll spend the rest of the day humming “Sweet Caroline” around the office and well off-key.

The Scottish post-rock* outfit, Mogwai, rarely uses lyrics (for rare exception, see “Cody”), and even when they do it’s clear they have no interest in whipping together a sing-along. (* Went with “post-rock” because that fits better than the other descriptor’s on the band’s Wikipedia page.) The band’s singer, Stuart Braithwaite, shared an interesting insight on that:

“I think most people are not used to having no lyrics to focus on. Lyrics are a real comfort to some people. I guess they like to sing along and when they can't do that with us they can get a bit upset.”
I am very much one of those people Braithwaite nods to in that quote (with that wee condescending “I guess”). A different song takes over DJ-ing duties in my head just about every hour; on the right night, and in the right mood (last Tuesday, for instance, about 10:30 at night, and on a bike), you might catch me wailing out lyrics as I pedal down the street (“Jigsaw Puzzle,” by The Rolling Stones, as it happens). Mogwai just doesn’t do it for me. With respect to Mr. Braithwaite and his clearly talented bandmates, I’ll stick comfort and let them wander into the post-rock wilds.

For anyone who listens to a song linked to in this post and finds he/she likes it, Mogwai has wandered those wilds for long enough (e.g., since 1997) to build up a fairly massive oeuvre. For the purposes of this volume, though, I listened to only three Mogwai albums: Come on Die Young (1999); Atomic (2016), and Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will (which is a goddamn great album title; also, came out in 2011; also that’s the only one that made it into my pre-Spotify collection). And, for me (and no…well, some shade), that was ample.

I know that bad art is possible, but there’s nothing actually “bad” about the music Mogwai puts out; it’s more that what they do pushes too hard against, oh, a couple of my personal limitations. In other words, it’s not them, it’s me…and we all know what that means, so I’ll get a couple (gently) biting observations out of my system, then we can wrap up this volume all smiles.

While I’m generally lukewarm on music that is exclusively instrumental, I have more than a few albums and acts that I can listen to just fine (see, Atomic 7, Man or Astro-Man, Air’s Moon Safari (mostly instrumental)). With Mogwai, though, I struggle on two levels. I spent some time yesterday grasping for adjectives to describe what I heard from them across those three albums. The handful of words I came up with – torpid, desolate, despondent, leaden – actually need just one more adjective to flesh out how I’d describe the listening experience: that word is “persistent.” While they lighten some songs by bringing in brighter musical elements (see the piano on “Hungry Face,” which actually comes from an album outside my three), nearly all the Mogwai songs I listened to carry the same, almost droning, weight. With the atmospherics, or musical ambience (Ambien?), anchoring so much of the work that I heard, and with the absence of lyrics, telling one song from the other becomes a serious, sometimes unwelcome, challenge.

I came up with what feels like a good mechanism to clarify this point. Take two random Mogwai songs: I went with “Are You a Dancer?” (Atomic) and “May Nothing But Happiness Come Through Your Door” (Come On Die Young). On the titles alone, it’s reasonable to expect two fairly different songs; more to the point, you’d think the song titles would communicate something about the respective songs. When I listen to those songs, they're clearly different, but does either song feel like its title, or possess a distinct enough musical mood to matter? (That said, I do like "Are You a Dancer?" better.) And what makes those songs actually stand out from, say, “Pripyat” or “Ex-Cowboy” or “Year 2000 Non-Compliant Cardia” (for what it’s worth, my favorite from Come On Die Young) or “U-235” (my favorite from Atomic). It’s as if Mogwai comes up with song titles via random word generator.

That sensation of songs bleeding together struck me on Atomic more than the other two. After the third listen, I wrote this note at the top of my notes; “The soundtrack for what kind of movie?” Even when the sounds they use are “big” (I used the word “epic” here and there), the emotional register to Mogwai’s music stays pretty flat, or better, cold or austere. More to the point, it doesn’t vary – sometimes at all. To close out this thought, they’d do fine on a movie soundtrack (and they’ve made a couple, too; including one that looks like it’s about French soccer legend, Zinedine Zidane), but I’m not sure it’s a movie I’d want to see (thinking some kind of space epic like Prometheus, or even 2010…and I chose 2010 deliberately).

Enough of that; time to move on to positives. A close reader might have noticed that I haven’t said much about Hardcore Will Never Die so far. That’s because that one appeals to me more than the other two – and quite a bit. Mogwai manages to introduce some real dynamism to this one, maybe even something close to an actual “pop” feel on a couple songs – there, I’m thinking either “George Square Thatcher Death Party” or “Mexican Grand Prix" (anyone else get a The Postal Service vibe from that one?). And to carry that thought forward, having a couple “up tempo” (enough) songs like that put a prettier, slower song like “Letters to the Metro” in an aural context that allows it to stand out, even to feel a little special. At any rate, Hardcore Will Never Die just feels, if not “happy” then just a little more straightforward, something one can listen to in a variety of moods…as opposed to wanting to feel, oh, maybe what you’d feel wandering the silent halls of a hospital, or something similarly bleak. My ears pricked up from the first track (“White Noise”), and I’d also flag “Rano Pano” and “San Pedro” as two solid songs from the “lighter side” of Mogwai’s work.

As much as I liked Hardcore Will Never Die, the question I asked myself when I was done gets to the heart of this whole post: will I ever be in the mood for it? While I did save most the songs listed above to my “library” (just saved the whole thing, actually) I didn’t save any songs to a current playlist (OK, just saved "George Square Thatcher") – something I’ve done with just about all the bands reviewed in this project. So, no, Mogwai just isn’t a band for me, but that has nothing to do with their talent, or whether or not what they do is interesting. I am just very much a lyrics guy; in fact, there are probably hundreds of songs I love because of the lyrics. Between that rather large detail, and my need for “dynamism” in what I’m listening to, Mogwai never really had a chance.

That’s me, though. Maybe this is someone else’s chance to fall in love with them.

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