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The sign of a band deserving of long-term success is that they know exactly when to change direction, and exactly how much to tweak with their basic sound. After realising that their basic slow-crescendo instrumental rock formula was starting to run dry on on "Come On Die Young", Mogwai reinvented themselves resoundingly well on "Rock Action". But the key point is they didn't mess around too much. Here they transferred some of their live dynamics to the studio and crafted a more glossy sound, aided by new producer Dave Fridmann. The result was unfashionably concise at around half the length of its predecessor.
Such polishing-up was bound to cause purist sticklers to protest that they were losing their soul, but the stand-out track "Two Rights Make One Wrong" demonstrates the love that went into this new approach. It's as slow-burning an instrumental as anything on "Young Team" but this time it's warm, uplifting and positive. And most significantly, colourful, its swells lathered with strings and brass, and its delicious fadeout adding banjos and a chorus of cascading wordless voices. Those hankering for the less beautiful, more conventionally gritty Mogwai crescendo-rock should be satisified by the pounding chords of "You Don't Know Jesus". And the curtain-raiser "Sine Wave" smears its single crescendo and diminuendo with layer upon layer of distorted noise, proving that polished can also mean calculatedly dirty as well as pretty.
The album's most ear-catching moments are the two successive laid-back tracks featuring vocals. The romantic, melancholy "Take Me Somewhere Nice" is a strong candidate for Mogwai's finest song ever. With romantic strings and trumpet, and tingly electric piano touches, they take their production and timing perfectionism to a new level here. But it isn't as new a direction as is sometimes claimed - it's not miles away from their earlier classics "R U Still In 2 It" and "Tracy". The other one, the elegiac "Dial: Revenge" is their most straightforward and concise song they have done. Well, as normal as one sung in Welsh by Gruff Rhys from the Super Furry Animals can be.
The fractured strums of "Secret Pint" form a desolate conclusion to this perfectly-formed album. As the easiest Mogwai album to digest, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to newcomers to the band.
April 2, 2006
(note: album not currently available from eMusic in the UK)