Playing God
Mogwai: Young Team

mogwai’s debut is often regarded by fans as their finest single effort, but if you ask the band themselves (or at least their website) they instead claim it’s their worst album. I’d have to agree with them, but then again my opinion is that Mogwai’s finest hour (and a bit) was the much maligned Come On Die Young. It’s not that the songs on Young Team are bad; with the exception of two brief, inconsequential interludes (“Radar Maker” and “A Cheery Wave From Stranded Youngsters”) everything here ranges from the solid to the spectacular. But sixty-five minutes is an awfully long time when you’re including the merely solid. All the parts are good but the whole drags, and after the even more sprawling Come On Die Young Mogwai seemed to agree, as both of their albums since could fit onto a single vinyl record easily. I’ve decided to try and apply the same focus to Young Team, ditching much of the good-but-redundant material (yes, I do mean “Like Herod”), adding in some old favorites from their Ten Rapid collection of pre-album material and turning Young Team into forty-eight minutes on a par, I feel, with other classic debuts like Marquee Moon.

1. “Helicon 1” (6:00, from Ten Rapid)
“Helicon 1” (named for the mountain that is reputedly home to the Muses) may just be the finest six minutes Mogwai ever committed to tape. Structurally it’s very simple, one guitar employs a shimmering holding pattern vaguely reminiscent of Bowie’s “Heroes” while the bass and other guitar repeat simple melodies atop it with increasing vehemence. There is a long build and a long fade. But of course, as with all great music, the description doesn’t come within spitting distance of touching the beauty this contains. It richly deserves the opening slot here.

2. “Yes! I Am A Long Way From Home” (5:58)
And yet, when I began this article I always assumed I’d put “Yes! I Am A Long Way From Home” at the beginning. It winds up working just as well in second place, though, complete with opening recording of a young woman praising the band.(“this music is bigger than words and wider than pictures”), which works much better once you’ve heard them in action for a song. The rest is gorgeous, moving from a gentle beginning to a series of shattering crescendos. This describes almost all of Mogwai’s music at this stage of their career, of course, but there are better and worse examples. This is one of the best.

3. “Ithaca 27/9” (2:57, from Ten Rapid)
Since I was thinking of vinyl, I wanted to split this new Young Team into definite sides, and given my choice of closer for side one, I needed a briefer song between the first two and it. They were in short supply on the original album, but “Ithaca 27/9” is perfect, starting out a little faster and more aggressive than most of their material from Young Team and erupting into a storm of static about two minutes in, keeping the energy level high.

4. “R U Still In 2 It” (7:23)
Most of my thoughts on this song can be found elsewhere on Stylus, and I can’t think of anything more suited to send out side one of the new and improved Young Team. Still as gorgeous and affecting as ever, and an effective comedown after the firestorm of “Ithaca 27/9”.

5. “Summer (Priority Version)” (3:31)
There is another version of “Summer” on Ten Rapid, but they might as well be different songs. The other is slower, rougher and louder, with a completely different melody driving it. What finally made me pick the “Priority Version” over the other is the way the bass here propels the song forward and never stops moving. Opening side two, this gets things off to a quick, roaring start.

6. “Tuner” (2:48, from Ten Rapid)
The rest of side two is very loud, for the most part, so I wanted a brief respite before the end. “Tuner”, complete with the ever-rare vocal performance by Stuart Braithwaite, is as quiet and as lovely as the band gets. The Ten Rapid version phases in through a blur of feedback from the previous song, so I’m imagining a new version that begins as softly as it ends.

7. “Mogwai Fear Satan” (16:18)
Young Team, either version, doesn’t sound much like Television of course. But if we’re going to draw comparisons, then “Mogwai Fear Satan” is definitely this band’s “Marquee Moon”. Not only is it assumed by most to be the highlight of the album, it lives up to any hype you can throw at it. Re-listening to it now I find myself focusing on things I hadn’t paid too much attention to before (how funky, relatively speaking, the drumming is; how well managed the rise and fall is; whether David Fridmann agreed to produce Come On Die Young after hearing the Yerself Is Steam-esque flute), but no matter what you focus on, “Mogwai Fear Satan” is one of the few true epics rock music has produced in the past decade or so. But I do move it back one, because as great as it is once it slowly ebbs away I feel the need to end the album with something else.

8. “With Portfolio” (3:13)
At the beginning it almost sounds like a lullaby, that placid, stately piano plodding out against the sound of crickets. And then the roar begins building, going from channel to channel, eventually subsuming everything else under a tsunami of static. “With Portfolio” is bracing after “Mogwai Fear Satan” and ending this Young Team with Mogwai’s most extreme song just seems fitting, especially if you’ve ever seen the band live. It cuts out suddenly, giving the listener a few seconds of silence before the track and the album actually end. Like the re-worked Young Team it is precisely targeted and completely devastating.

By: Ian Mathers
Published on: 2004-12-07
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