After establishing their personal brand of moody instrumental rock so successfully with "Young Team", Mogwai's second album is less easy to get into. It's firmly rooted in the same territory, most obviously those swelling dynamics, and their compositions are lavished with the same variety of guitars, effects and production care. Their style is usually summed up simply as "loud-soft", but what makes them distinctive is their softs. The patient pacing of their quieter moments imbue their explosive climaxes with more significance.
But it's an unsatisfying followup overall. It's too long, and several tracks, especially on the first half of the album, seem like gloomier shadows of tracks from "Young Team". Most obviously, the one "song", "Cody", which is far less evocative than the "R U Still In 2 It". The lifeless vocal part only detracts from the elegance of the tune, and some country guitar twangs entrench the downbeat mood. Maybe they had an unhappy trip to America.
The guitar brooding and soundbites of the intro "Punk rock:" is classic Mogwai cool, but other routine medium-length instrumentals just serve as padding. "Helps Both Ways" is hollow and depressing, its football commentary overdub suggesting being stuck in a lonely American hotel room. It might be evocative but it's not engaging. Similarly "Waltz for Aidan" might have been played on the hotel's empty knackered dancefloor. On "Kappa" you can sense them trying to break out of their rut, but its tense one-chord swells don't come close to "Like Herod".
It's only in the latter half of the album that it gets its act together and the energy levels are boosted. A wistful electric-piano theme carries the broad "May Nothing But Happiness", although I prefer "Tracy" from "Young Team". The ambient crackles of "Oh How the Dogs Stack Up" are like something from Mercury Rev's "Deserters Songs", a more satisfyingly romantic album of spacious American landscaping.
Finally, there are three seriously good long pieces in a row. These makes the album quite bottom-heavy, and are maybe best enjoyed without having to sit through the weaker earlier stuff. "Ex-cowboy" is a thrilling no-tune piece concentrating on textures and dynamics alone. Two crescendos, the second one even more powerful than the first, and once you get there it still doesn't relent, pulling out all the stops for the whooshing climax. To balance out the pure noise, this is followed by the graceful "Chocky". When you'd almost forgotten that Mogwai can also do melody, the white noise of the first three minutes is swept away beautifully with a noble piano theme that arches gracefully over six minutes, backed by ebbs and flows of pounding guitars. "Christmas Steps" is the most subtle. Its punchy middle section is the rockiest thing on the album, evolving from a ghostly opening guitar figure, and finally washed away with an ethereal haze of violins.
"Come On Die Young " is not essential for a casual listener who already has "Young Team", though there are gems here which deserve some digging to find. In any case, the huge variety of opinions on the relative merits of Mogwai albums, never mind Mogwai tracks, makes me believe instrumental post-rock is a particularly subjective genre.
March 21, 2006