One of the most peculiarly frustrating aspects of being either a fan or a critic of a particular group or album is liking something, even liking something a lot, and not knowing how to talk about it. Fans have the relative luxury of keeping their mouths shut and just letting the music please them without dwelling too much on intellectualizing their experience. Critics, on the other hand, have to explain themselves.
Mahogany’s Dream of a Modern Day puts me in that very position. I’m reminded of a rather dismissive album review that graced the pages of one of those famous, bloated, self-indulgent rock magazines (you know the ones I mean) that simply referred to Echo and the Bunnymen frontman Ian McCulloch’s debut solo album, Candleland, in one word: “Morrisseyland”. Ha ha. Regardless of the critic’s particular tastes and dislikes for something seen as so derivative, it should be their job to give us something more than that. But as I listen and re-listen to Dream of a Modern Day, I’m tempted to follow that example and just say: “Dream of a Cocteau Twins Day”. (Obviously, as you’ve already read through more words than that, you know I didn’t go through with it).
The thing is, Andrew Prinz, Mahogany’s creative center, really, really likes the Cocteau Twins. He might even take the reductionist review as a compliment. Dream of a Modern Day drips so much of the reverbed guitar and ethereal vocals that made the Guthrie/Fraser coupling so powerful that it might as well be a tribute album. As such, you can pretty much guess that this disc is filled with keyboard washes, airy singing, and a dream-pop lushness that is as soothing as a warm glass of milk before bedtime. What’s missing, unfortunately, is the power and punch of Heaven or Las Vegas, arguably the greatest album the Twins ever produced. Robin Guthrie had a real knack for soft, toned down melodies that somehow also managed to sound sweeping and full of grandeur, and Elizabeth Fraser’s voice was, in spite of its general unintelligibility, never lulling.
Prinz, for his part, gets it right about half of the time, at least in terms of imitating the Cocteau Twins. “Soleil Radieux” could be lifted from one of the early CT albums. But Prinz also has his own little spin on things. It is the use of cello over the course of the album that is most engaging, especially its subtle, layered usage. There’s also a recognition of the machine aesthetic of the drum machine that, rather than imitating the organic, embraces the artificial. This is most evident on “The Mystique of the Locomotive”, which seems almost futuristically fascinated with steam rhythms. Prinz dabbles in orchestration with brief instrumental interludes like “Movement I” and “Movement II”, which also help to set up different acts within the album.
There’s not doubt that the Cocteau Twins were not only a powerful force on their own, but also a prevalent influence on music that came after them. In that sense, it’s not too unfair to equate Mahogany with their forebears. And even though it’s tempting to write the whole affair off as derivative, the fact of the matter is that Dream of a Modern Day is a wholly beautiful album.
Mahogany has received praise from everyone from New Musical Express, to Alternative Press, to John Peel, to having one of their singles named one of the best of 1999 by Magnet. It’s also important, I suppose, to realize that the Darla release is actually a second pressing of this disc, which first came to light in late 2000. Prinz has since packed up shop in Michigan and moved to New York, parting ways with Dream of a Modern Day‘s vocalist, Alyssa Massais. With a new vocalist and keyboard programmer on board, I’m hoping that their second effort will be even stronger, because, all comparisons be damned, Mahogany is worth it.