[12 March 2013]
Most rock bands don’t wind up doing scoring work; when they do, that work doesn’t necessarily get released. Not Mogwai. This is its third soundtrack album, after the 2006 releases, Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait and The Fountain: Music from the Motion Picture. But Les Revenants feels different.Zidane, after all, was put together on fairly short notice and partially improvised, and The Fountain had the band augmenting the work of Clint Mansell and the Kronos Quartet. So in at least one sense this marks Mogwai’s first real crack at composing a soundtrack. More than that, even; the show’s creators wanted the band to make the soundtrack before they filmed the series so they’d have a mood to start with, rather than writing songs to accompany a finished product.
I haven’t seen the TV series this music accompanies (it’s French; as far as I know there are no plans for it to make its way to English TV), but maybe in this case that’s the right way to listen to the music, since Mogwai hadn’t either. Possibly that aspect of the score’s production is part of why Les Revenants hangs together better as an album than most scores, although the The Fountain was also unusually successful in that respect. Coming off of the astoundingly strong Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will.—not so much a return to form as a masterful summation of the band’s prowess—more recent releases like the remix collection A Wrenched Virile Lore and the Earth Division EP have showcased parts of the band’s sound that don’t often get aired out or even tested (that EP, especially, is quietly the weirdest thing Mogwai’s ever put out, and I mean that with love). Les Revenants offers an opportunity to do both; the score is both familiar and novel for longtime fans, sometimes at the same time.
“The Huts”, for example, sounds like it could be a prelude to the mighty “Christmas Steps”, while “Special N” and “Relative Hysteria” are gorgeous in a dreamy way the band has never quite reached for before. The end of “Hungry Face” brings in big stomping drums akin to the ones in “Auto Rock”, but the fuzz from that track finds a home over the doomy piano and violin ambience of “Portugal” instead. But these are connections, not repurposings; more often than not, as when the fluttering “Eagle Tax” shifts into a cymbal heavy climax or the band sings a gentle, folky cover of Washington Phillips’ “What Are They Doing in Heaven Today?”, Les Revenants is distinctly it’s own thing. Although some of the briefer numbers (“Jaguar”, “Whisky Time”) do sound more like linking bits from a soundtrack than anything else, they work just as well as segues on an album, and many of the more substantial tracks stand easily with Mogwai’s other songs (“Wizard Motor,” for example, could have been slipped onto Hardcore... without raising much of a fuss).
Although the quality of these tracks is uniformly high, if anything hampers Mogwai’s work here it’s a simple matter of length. Even on albums like Hardcore... that don’t feature any real epic-length tracks, Mogwai consistently manage to find that elusive fifth gear most often when working in the five-to-seven minute range and, barring the Phillips cover, nothing here even gets to five. That makes sense; scenes in a TV show only last so long, and the kinds of climax Mogwai often builds to might be distracting as background music. But the compositions here are so strong and extend Mogwai’s sound in such promising ways that it’s hard not to wonder how they would have taken a “Special N” or a “This Messiah Needs Watching” further. That does mean the band can pack more ideas into a shorter span, but mostly Les Revenants is impressive for showing just how good Mogwai is even when its playing against (a few of) its strengths.