Government Commissions: BBC Sessions 1996-2003
t's a cliché at the moment, but there’s an enormous amount of bands that owe their careers to the patronage of John Peel. It’s a debt that Mogwai are happy to acknowledge, considering it’s the late Peel himself who introduces them ("Ladies and Gentlemen…Mogwai”) on this collection of their BBC sessions.
In the absence of any kind of Mogwai sampler or hits collection it's possible that this will serve as a taster to the curious, but its real home is with the Mogwai faithful who'll doggedly compare and contrast these recordings with their original versions. Those fans will undoubtedly find positives and negatives in these recordings, as the group mixes up the spontaneity of live work with the tweaking that studio time provides.
“New Paths To Helicon Pt II” both in its incarnation here as a session track and the originally titled "Helicon II" remains one of their strongest and more instantly acceptable guitar melodies. Where tracks are supported by a softer almost brushed beat shuffling along in support, “New Paths To Helicon Pt II” relies just as heavily on piano as it does on guitar creating two subtly different intertwining melody lines. Why settle for the original’s half measure? But it’s also possible for an important missing element to instantly sink a version as with this LP’s version of “R U Still in 2 It?” The instrumental version here still ebbs and flows as well as the Young Team version, but the vast difference between the two is that the latter featured Arab Strap’s Aidan Moffat on vocals and his performance was the track’s core. Despite retaining the quirky noise fade-out, the Strapless GC version really can’t really compare.
Both versions of “Secret Pint” have a live loose atmosphere but it's the original that remains the more subdued, which is understandable considering the live element of the BBC session recordings. The GC version's prominent rhythm pushes forward a loud rim tap and a big bass drum where before the stilted beat was a crutch for the track. But the positive elements of the louder vocal (sadly revealing the lack of profundity), higher piano notes and the addition of an upfront cello takes away from the original's deeper melancholy air. The barely audible nursery rhyme lyric "Ghosts are scared of falling down" works because of the shroud of softer notes and foggy Gramophone Strings that you don't find on this BBC version.
Government Commissions really succeeds when the band adds a new component or captures part of that intangible energy that makes a great live performance. Taking its title from a hefty piece of biblical slaughter, “Like Herod” is extended and stretched to an 18:32 slab of lulls and roars. Listening back to their debut’s take on the song, its astounding how this session effort takes the song to new levels of vitriol. They’ve perfectly captured notes hemorrhaging in spurts of arterial feedback as mini-tunes burst from the racket / feedback with hands choking the treble end of the scale. Amongst the peaceful plucking and strums come two massive waves of angry pitch deep noise and even at its ends it remains unspent, still churning out mechanical spittle and nails.
As a career taster it’s not fully representative of the wider edges of Mogwai’s sound (the experimentalism, excessive white noise, vocals, folk, and electronics) and beginners should be seeking out Ten Rapid or Young Team instead and get in at the ground level. But the quality of the music here, whether you agree that some of the session versions match or improve upon their originals or not, make this a collection worth picking up for sheer song quality alone. If you intend to be anal about the finer details you’ll probably be disappointed, but this is a fine collection of alternate takes on some great tunes.
Reviewed by: Scott McKeating
Reviewed on: 2005-02-22