Mogwai, Low, and Trans Am
29 March 1999
Come on Die Young
Mogwai’s second album wasn’t just competing with Young Team, it was competing with “Like Herod” and “Mogwai Fear Satan”, two justly beloved classics that still retain the power to thrill today. Both possess more than enough dynamics and riffs to appeal to all sorts of guitar rock fans, so when the Scottish band followed them up with an album lacking anything quite as obviously ingratiating, the worm turned immediately. The result was the kind of classic sophomore slump backlash you don’t see in its purest form anymore, and to this day people talk about Come on Die Young as if it was a let down—too slow, too chilly, not fierce enough.
Fortunately, they’re wrong. It’s true that Come on Die Young is the most starkly abstracted of Mogwai’s album, but it might also be their best—as a start-to-finish album rather than a series of explosive moments, at least. While “Like Herod” was track two on its album, providing an immediate climax, CoDY saves its fireworks for one three-song, 30-minute burst at the end. The regimented “Christmas Steps” is the one the band still plays, but “Ex-Cowboy” in particular is a sadly neglected firestorm that ranks with the band’s best work (possibly because it spends much of its nine minutes in a tsunami of pure, riffless noise). The first half of the album isn’t exactly a slouch either, but at the time the likes of “Kappa” and “Helps Both Ways” were dismissed as unexciting. With hindsight, CoDY looks better, though. As great an asset as Barry Burns has been, he (and his piano) have changed Mogwai’s sound significantly, and these songs are the last written and performed in Mogwai’s original mode. It was overlooked at the time, but the flipside of the contention that these songs don’t rage hard enough is that they feature the prettiest, most distinctive guitar playing Mogwai has performed to date.
And then there’s the sort-of title track “Cody”, still the best Mogwai song to feature conventional vocals. It’s a gorgeous song, above all else, and leads perfectly into what wound up being Mogwai’s most formally beautiful album. Later albums like Rock Action and Mr. Beast would feature Mogwai’s strength at distilling their ideas down into more compact packages, balancing the furious and composed sides of their sound more evenly, but the sprawling, cunningly sequenced Come on Die Young is still their grandest statement. Ian Mathers
30 March 1999
Early in their career, Low’s music was involuntarily branded with the predictable catchphrase “slowcore”, which hung around like a serviceable but ultimately regrettable Spring Break ‘99 butterfly back tattoo for years until a string of later releases finally lasered the phrase off. But focusing on the tempo of Low’s earlier records, including Secret Name, totally misses the multi-dimensionality of the band and its music. Contrary to the cop-out “slowcore” slogan, Low is and always was more than just the sum of its BPM.
The last year of the last millennium bore a strange selection of musical fruits. Amid the blockbuster Britneys of the day, independent music still thrived, with 1999 seeing the release of awesome records by Pavement and Sleater-Kinney, and labels like Merge and Kranky putting out seminal records like East River Pipe’s Gasoline Age and Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Slow Riot for New Zerø Kanada.
Low’s 1999 effort stands with the best of its year, and remains an outstanding step in the band’s development. Songs like “Missouri” and “Starfire” epitomize the kind of careful, spare melodies and deliberate instrumentation that would continue to be among Low’s musical hallmarks throughout their career. Listening to Secret Name in 2009, knowing what Low would go on to do with the more rambunctious and fully executed Great Destroyer, as well as the lush, angry, and experimental Drums and Guns, it is clear that this earlier album still serves as a reflection of Low’s best elements—their oft-overlooked sense of humor, strong songwriting that draws from a deep and diverse well of musical influences (from Bauhaus to Outkast), and above all a work-horse aesthetic that has always driven them toward intentionally disciplined, structured, and restrained songs. Secret Name marks a notch along the ascendancy of a band that I doubt has even reached its apex yet, and a decade after its release, the album remains as lovely, focused, and worthwhile as ever. Gabrielle Goldstein
1 April 1999
The world after 1999 was a fantasia for science fiction writers and readers in the century that preceded it. These visions of yesterday’s tomorrows, and the correlations and contrasts with our present, are especially fascinating now because they represent worlds that might have been, had we not been led down the paths, good or bad, that we were eventually taken.
Futureworld, post-rock minimalist group Trans Am’s shining moment, is not necessarily the retro-futurist tract its Tron-like album cover, vocoded vocals, and dystopian motorik beats make it out to be. Instead, like that old sci-fi: it’s an alternate reality, an alternative history. Futureworld is a sparser, less densely populated world. Around half of the tracks on the album are chase anthems (“Television Eyes”, “Futureworld”)—paranoid and taut like a race against the clock—and the other half can reach moments of great power and joy (particularly the epic “Sad and Young”). “Cocaine Computer” is probably the album’s lone connection to the present, as its funky disco groove, jangly guitars, and Romeo Void dank NYC sax recalls the dancefloor reign of the DFA and their many kindred spirits.
The album’s vocoder vocals are not used for kitschy effects, but rather to obscure the view. None of the lyrics are particularly comprehensible, save for the OMD-ish sheen of “Runners Standing Still” and the creepy ‘bot on “Am Rhein”, which insists “Come back to my house, baby” in between jagged dirges reminiscent of Helmet or Godflesh. Instead, the robo-voices feed back like a foreign language, a distant approximation of English or German, sent from another world, another 1999, one that makes our 2009 look like the Stone Age. Timothy Gabriele
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