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Call me literal-minded. But it seems to me that if, like Scotland’s Mogwai, you’re going to call your new album Rock Action, the least you could do is include some, you know, rock action on it. Like a guitar solo, maybe. Or some Iggy-style (he’s the guy referenced in the title, after all) punk energy. Or, at the very least, a good singalong chorusyou know, like the ones you used to hear on the car radio.
Then again, Mogwai has always taken a perverse delight in stirring up controversy (with its “Blur: Are Shite” T-shirts and Glastonbury Festival chants of “Fuck the Queen”) and defying people’s expectations. I bought the band’s previous album, 1999’s Come On Die Young, at least in part because of its urgent-sounding title. Turns out a more appropriate name for this thick-as-a-brick slice of brooding post-rockideal for gnawing on when depressed or can’t-get-off-the-sofa stonedwould have been Come On Die Yawning. It’s nice enough, just not very stimulating.
So I doubt I’d have crossed the room to hear Mogwai’s new one if the members of the band hadn’t called it Rock Action and made some pointed comments in NME about how they’d had some kind of hard-rock epiphany and how this was going to be their Houses of the Holy. Which, sucker that I am, I actually believed. Mogwai gone Zeppelin? Why, it was like hearing that Radiohead intended to abandon intergalactic lemon-sucking to do Slade covers.
Well, the good news is that Rock Action is a better disc than Come On Die Young. And it does kind of remind me of a Zep albumif you were to take one and strip away the catchy hooks, slashing solos, and banshee howls, leaving nothing but the faux-pastoral mannerisms and pile-driver beats. Indeed, with its occasional folk flourishes, what Rock Action reminds me of more than anything else is good old Genesis-style prog rock.
“Dial: Revenge,” for example, begins with a suspiciously “Dust in the Wind”-like guitar line and what sounds to my ears like medieval monks chanting “Ronnie James Dio” over and over; then the strings come in and guest vocalist Gruff Rhys starts singing. In Welsh, no less. The whole thing is lush and pretentious beyond words. Rest assured: Somewhere out there, Kansas is laughing.
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You can blame Rock Action knob-twiddler Dave Fridmann, the upstate New York “progducer” whose Rasputinlike manipulations have been responsible for thickening up the sounds of such diverse bands as the Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, Elf Power, and the Delgados. Or you can blame Radiohead. Whoever’s fault it is, bombast and opacity are back in vogue, and Mogwai is about as bombastic and opaque as they come.
The bandStuart Braithwaite on guitar and vocals, John Cummings on guitar, Dominic Aitchison on bass, Martin Bulloch on drums, and Barry Burns on horns, guitars, and God only knows what elseopens Rock Action with “Sine Wave,” a murky, bottom-heavy slow burn of an instrumental that builds to a pummeling “When the Levee Breaks”-esque finale. Wreathed in static (when Braithwaite says, “We’ve spent a lot of money making this album sound hissy,” believe him) and driven by Bulloch’s muffled but menacing drumming, the tune is both lush and brutal.
“Take Me Somewhere Nice” uses strings and is pretty in a slow, sad, coming-home-alone-just-before-sunrise kind of way. Braithwaite’s elegiac vocals sound as if he’s saying goodbye to all that, and it’s all so beautiful and sad and symphonic that you don’t know whether to cry or just go to bed as strings are piled upon strings and Braithwaite sings, “What would you do/If you saw spaceships/Over Glasgow?” I don’t know, Stuart, really. But I would recommend that you lay off the Ecstasy for a spell.
“You Don’t Know Jesus” is similar, an instrumental that builds and builds, Bulloch banging away like John Bonham’s ghost and the guitars playing the same mournful riff into eternity. But “2 Rights Make 1 Wrong” is Rock Action’s showstopper. It opens with an absolutely sunny guitar riff and somebody doing Peter Frampton-style vocoder schtick. Then the drums and the bass kick in, and, lo, a joyful noise is come unto the land, with some gorgeous strings and a couple of horns getting thrown into the mix before the whole thing swings into jazzy overdrive. It’s a song that justifies all the hypeeven though the end is polluted with a plucked banjo and weird la-la vocals that just stink of High Llamas-esque pretentiousness.
There are plenty of throwaways taking up space on Rock Action, too: the alluring but inconsequential ballad “O I Sleep,” the abbreviated and pointless blast of guitar-feedback filler “Robot Chant,” and the lugubrious piano-led album closer, “Secret Pint.” “2 Rights Make 1 Wrong” is pretty impressive, though, so despite having now been burned twice by Mogwai, I’m reluctantly forced to admit that I’ll probably check out the group’s next album in the hope that it will sound more like that song and less like “Dial: Revenge.”
Braithwaite has said that Rock Action marks a departure “from the sackcloth of old,” but, as “Secret Pint” clearly illustrates, old habits die hard. Like their pals in Arab Strap, the members of Mogwai may be too hooked on mope to turn a new leaf, no matter how much good it would do them. Still, anything is possible. And I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed, because either Mogwai’s next one will be great or it will make a three-time loser out of me. CP