Mogwai – As The Love Continues
Mogwai is a Scottish band that formed in 1995 in Glasgow; founding members Stuart Braithwaite and Dominic Aitchison first toyed with forming a band a few years earlier, but the idea really gelled when they teamed up with former schoolmate Martin Bulloch. The band name Mogwai came from the sometimes cute but often scary creatures in the movie Gremlins, but Stuart Braithwaite says that the name really has no significance with regard to the band. They just thought it sounded cool, but would eventually change the band’s name when a better one could be chosen. That never happened, and the band name has carried on for over twenty-five years now. The word “Mogwai” from the Cantonese Chinese language means evil spirit or devil, but again, Braithwaite says there’s no relevance between the name and the band’s ethos. Their music is most often described as post-rock and sometimes space-rock; not having heard them before this record, I didn’t really know what to expect, but I’d definitely agree with the post-rock descriptor. The music is infused with a definite rock vibe, but feels more futuristic or forward-leaning. The music also contains many elements of prog-rock; from the opening track “To the Bin My Friend, Tonight We Vacate Earth,” I intrinsically knew that I was going to looove this record!
Mogwai’s lineup has remained consistent since 1998, consisting of Braithwaite on guitars, bass, and vocals; Dominic Aitchison on bass and guitar; Martin Bulloch on drums; and Barry Burns on guitar, bass, keyboards, synths, flute, and vocals. A pretty diverse group of musicians, and you can easily tell that with twenty-plus years together, the band members know each other’s styles intimately as they perform together seamlessly. Much of the band’s musical style has often been compared to the shoegaze or math-rock genres, but multi-instrumentalist Barry Burns has outright dismissed that, stating that he and the rest of the band don’t like the categorization of their music, because it leads to excessive over-analyzation of their style. And much of Mogwai’s music is instrumental; Stuart Braithwaite made a statement to the Daily Express in 1999 in response to fan complaints that fans should “forget the vocals, just come on and feel the noise!”
As The Love Continues is Mogwai’s tenth studio album, and their second to be released in the current pandemic reality. Most of the album was written and performed remotely by the various band members, and assembled later at Vada Studios in Alcester, Warwickshire in England. Stuart Braithwaite says it was the first time any of the band had been outside Scotland since the pandemic took hold of the UK. Braithwaite said that leaving Scotland and going to Vada Studios in England was amazing, and that [as a Scotsman] “going to England being amazing is not a sentence I thought I’d ever say in my life[!]”
The music has a definite rock and roll feel to it, though with a bit more of a kind of droning proggishness. It was really an interesting listen; while my original intent was to simply skim through the tracks to get some kind of idea about the music, I ended up listening to the whole album from end to end. There’s a lot here that’s really fresh, but at the same time, there’s a kind of weird familiarity with many of the songs, almost as though I knew some of them but couldn’t place any of the references. I’m not trying to say that As The Love Continues is derivative in any way, but there was a certain comforting familiarity to be found in many of the tunes. Kind of a Black Sabbath meets Pink Floyd meets King Crimson meets Radiohead kind of thing…I’m sure that fans of the band will crucify me for this, but I still found listening to them both tranquilizing and invigorating at the same time. And with the exception of the song “Ritchie Sacramento” – which is sung with clean vocals by Braithwaite, and is an homage of sorts to people they’ve lost during the pandemic – all of the tracks are instrumental, with the occasional voice effect or vocoded vocal added for texture. I’m certain their fans will be in an uproar, once again!
The 24/96 digital files on Qobuz are really superb; the album has subterranean bass that shook my whole house more so than any other album in recent memory, and it also possesses an incredibly wide dynamic range. Even my wife Beth complained! Dave Clark, one of my editors over at Positive Feedback, really digs this band and has recommended them countless times, but for whatever reason I’ve ignored them until now. I plan on digging deeply into their back catalog, and am also on the lookout for an LP. Very highly recommended!
Temporary Residence Limited, CD/LP/limited edition LP (download/streaming from Bandcamp, Qobuz [24/96], Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Pandora, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, TuneIn)
Tindersticks – Distractions
Nottingham, England’s Tindersticks is an alternative rock group that was the brainchild of principal songwriter and lead vocalist Stuart Staples in 1991. His distinctive baritone voice is one of the band’s most recognizable hallmarks, the other being the extraordinary orchestrations of multi-instrumentalist Dickon Hinchcliffe. After six studio albums, the band essentially went on hiatus in the early 2000s, with Hinchcliffe then dedicating his work output to composing music for films while Staples embarked on a solo career. The band reformed permanently in 2008, and when Hinchcliffe declined to return, the group continued as a trio and with a much pared down stylistic palette. The trio consisted of founding members Stuart Staples (guitars, vocals), Dave Boulter (organ and accordion), and Neil Fraser (guitars), but have recently been augmented by Dan McKinna (guitars, bass, keyboards, string arrangements) and Earl Harvin (drums, percussion, bass, guitars). Distractions is the band’s thirteenth studio album, but the group has also composed music for the soundtracks of seven films by French filmmaker Claire Denis.
Distractions hearkens back to the sonic presentation of Tindersticks’ 2019 release No Treasure But Hope, which was also a very minimalist musical affair. The opening track, “Man Alone (can’t stop the fadin’),” begins with muted keyboards, synths, and Staples’ deeply resonant baritone. As the eleven-plus-minute track progresses, Staples’ vocal refrains are multi-tracked and layered across the wide and deep soundstage; at points, he’s coming at you from seemingly every direction. At first reflective and subdued, the pace of the song rapidly picks up, almost turning into a club-like, nearly danceable anthem; the song’s eleven minutes go by very quickly indeed!
There’s also a very plaintive cover of Neil Young’s classic “A Man Needs A Maid” (from the album Harvest); I almost did a double take when the tune started playing. Because there are currently no album credits listed on Qobuz’s stream site for the record, and even though my brain told me that it was probably just another song that happens to have the same title as Neil’s, I was still blown away when I realized it was a cover – and by the delicacy and poignancy it was delivered with. What a totally effective and meaningful reworking of the song that Stuart Staples and Tindersticks were able to create. Dan McKinna has apparently (and quite successfully) filled the orchestration and arrangement void left by the departure of Dickon Hinchcliffe, but with Distractions being such a bare-bones affair, his arranging contributions appear to be held to a minimum here.
The 24/96 digital stream from Qobuz was outstanding, if perhaps not as dynamic as I might have expected it to be, but it offered a very realistic presentation of the band, along with some engagingly “out there” mixing effects. Large swaths of the album delve into what I’d describe as “almost electronica,” offering a relatively spare musical presentation to the record’s six tracks with a lot of the focus on Stuart Staples’ very distinctive voice. Some may find Staples’ voice a little off-putting, and it definitely had me raising my eyebrows at points throughout the album, but I was able to make the transition from skepticism to acceptance relatively quickly. That said, I still found Distractions to be a very compelling listen, and well worth checking out, especially if you have access to one of the online streaming services. Highly recommended.
City Slang, CD/LP (download/streaming from Qobuz [24/96], Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, TuneIn)
The Pretty Reckless – Death By Rock and Roll
The Pretty Reckless’ lead singer Taylor Momsen has an interesting back story. Originally intent on making a go in Hollywood as an actress, her big break was when she was chosen at age seven for the role of Cindy Lou Who along with Jim Carrey’s in 2000’s over-the-top trainwreck of a remake of the holiday classic How The Grinch Stole Christmas. She moved onto a number of kid-and-teen oriented movie appearances, but got another blast of exposure when she secured the recurring role of Jenny Humphrey in the CW network mainstay Gossip Girl in an extended run from 2007-2012. Eventually she grew tired of the grind of filming a weekly television series, and having always wanted to pursue a career in the music biz, started slumming with The Pretty Reckless when the band came together in 2009. The band was soon signed to Interscope Records, and were also recruited to tour as opening act for The Veronicas. In 2010, their debut album, Light Me Up was released – which was a critical and commercial success – and they were soon signed to appear as the opening act for Evanescence on tour throughout 2011. Taylor Momsen – who’s not too difficult to look at (she’s actually pretty freaking gorgeous) – had been signed to a modeling contract by IMG Models at age fifteen, and has posed completely or nearly nude on a couple of the band’s album covers. Cindy Lou Who becomes alt-rock frontman – go figure!
The Pretty Reckless set a Billboard chart record in 2014 with the release of their album Going To Hell, when their first two singles each reached the Number One position on the charts – a first for a female-fronted rock band. They’ve since added three more chart-topping singles along the way, making the record now five Number One singles by a female-fronted rock band – very impressive indeed! Here’s the kicker for me – as hot as Taylor Momsen is, and with the phenomenal commercial and critical success that The Pretty Reckless has enjoyed for the last several albums, they’ve completely flown under my radar this entire time. I don’t really listen to any current rock radio, and for whatever reason, I’ve completely missed out on all the buzz about the band. And I had no clue that Cindy Lou Who was all grown up, strutting it on stage in nine-inch heels along with screaming guitars. That is, until now; I was recently skimming through my Facebook news feed, when a post by Qobuz USA point man David Solomon offered a link to the new album, Death By Rock and Roll (their fourth studio album), and raved about how much he was enjoying it. The cover definitely caught my attention, so I decided to give it listen – and boy, am I glad I did!
Not that this is strictly the Taylor Momsen show; the band also features crack musicians Ben Phillips on lead guitar and backing vocals, Jamie Perkins on drums, and Mark Damon on bass. As Ben Phillips’ guitar sears into the first few notes of the opening title track, you almost get the idea that Death By Rock and Roll is a hardcore/metal affair, with pounding drums and crunching guitar chords. And Taylor Momsen does a very credible job of totally owning the whole “rock and roll woman” thing; apparently, after the band started taking off a few years ago, she basically went through a very “wild child” (she’s only 25!) period of outrageous style of dress and even more outrageous behavior. In recent interviews, she makes it clear that she’s toned things down a bit, but you still can’t help but be somewhat wowed by her aggressive and seductive vocals. Yeah, I know we’re still squarely in the midst of the Me Too era, but I’m hoping you’ll give me a pass on waxing so excessively on how much her over-the-top appearance contributes to my enjoyment of the band!
But like I was saying, you almost get the impression that this is a metal band – until you get to the songs that would make up side two of the LP, and a couple of the songs have a softer, almost country ballad type of feel. That kind of threw me just a bit, but everything on the album is so well-executed, I can’t really find any fault with it.
Qobuz’s digital stream of Death By Rock and Roll is presented in 24/48 quality; it’s definitely a very well-recorded album, and a blast to listen to! While I think The Pretty Reckless is still a work in progress, and some of the songs are perhaps a bit cookie-cutter stylistically, they’re currently making all the right moves, and will probably only get better with each successive album. I’m currently on the hunt for an LP copy – they seem to be sold out just about everywhere. Highly recommended!
Fearless Records, CD/LP/Cassette (download/streaming from Qobuz [24/48], Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, TuneIn)
Header image of Mogwai courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Black Kite.