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Mogwai - Happy Songs for Happy People

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Artist: Mogwai

Album: Happy Songs for Happy People

Label: Matador

Review date: Jun. 26, 2003

Monsters of (Post) Rock

Rather like their metamorphosing namesake in Gremlins, Mogwai have proven to be a creature of extremes: hushed and benign one minute, a seething, snarling beast the next. However, the same characteristics that initially earned Mogwai their deserved reputation as a welcome alternative to Britpop have become a little predictable.

Since 1997's Young Team, the band has rarely pushed beyond its schizophonic routine. With its combination of murky, plodding numbers and murky, plodding numbers that occasionally erupt into passages of massive heavy-metal Sturm und Drang, Come on Die Young was a mildly disappointing sophomore effort. By 2001's ironically named Rock Action, Mogwai at times sounded too lethargic even to inject some of their signature extreme noise terror, instead placing the onus largely on brooding, introspective atmospherics. Still, their Jekyll and Hyde persona made its truly epic return with last year's 20-minute single, "My Father My King."

The band's exploration of dynamics certainly makes for compelling listening and, in live performance, it can be an awesome, deafening spectacle. Even so, with Mogwai now in their eighth year, it's not unreasonable to expect something more than variations on the quiet/loud theme. Indeed, before hearing Happy Songs for Happy People, I assumed that Mogwai would be remembered as the group that built a career out of approximating the moment of dramatic transition in King Crimson's "Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Part One." Thankfully, though, Happy Songs for Happy People shows considerable development.

Happy Songs for Happy People displays none of Rock Action's lapses and remains engaging from start to finish, exhibiting a certain continuity similar to the previous album's more focused material. On Rock Action, tracks such as "Sine Wave" and "2 Rights Make 1 Wrong" rose above the general swamp of noodling; they were more purposeful, more immediate in their impact, and found Mogwai adding an extra electronic sheen. That approach is further explored here on numbers like "Hunted by a Freak," which mixes ethereal guitars, austere cello, heavily processed vocals, and a fine layer of electronics to hypnotic effect.

The incorporation of melancholy strings alongside soaring melodies and storms of distortion on several tracks brings the Glaswegian band closer to Godspeed You! Black Emperor than ever before. "Stop Coming to My House" and "Killing All the Flies" offer the clearest examples of this, expanding the emotive range of Mogwai's music and emulating the apocalyptic beauty often attained by the Montréal collective. Interestingly, neither of these tracks passes the five-minute mark and yet they have the epic feel of much longer pieces; this is symptomatic of a newfound depth in the band's work, as these tracks achieve a spatially expansive resonance without going to epic temporal lengths. In much the same vein is "Boring Machines Disturbs Sleep," which evokes Eno's "An Ending (Ascent)," from Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks – albeit with percussion and hushed vocals.

Of course, no Mogwai album would be complete without a tumultuous epic and Happy Songs for Happy People doesn't disappoint on that count. It goes without saying that Mogwai aren't known for their subtlety, but the louder passages on this record are more carefully and seamlessly integrated. In the past, the band's explosive interludes have sometimes had a gratuitous feel, as if they originate outside the track and have been forced upon it. Here, such passages emerge more naturally from within. This is the case on the standout "Ratts of the Capital," as squalling feedback and earthmoving riffs gradually make their presence felt as part of the track's overall mantric texture. Moreover, on this number, Mogwai manage to do in eight minutes and twenty-seven seconds what it took them nearly three times as long to do on "My Father My King."

Mogwai still seem to be displaying their sense of irony in calling this album Happy Songs for Happy People; the music here has not lost its edge or devolved into cheery simplicity. Nevertheless, this record does show an appreciation for beauty and subtlety that had not often come to the fore in the band's previous work. Moving well beyond the claustrophobic and listless tendencies of earlier releases and doing away with their predictably two-dimensional dynamics, this is Mogwai's strongest album to date.

By Wilson Neate

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