Mahogany: Memory Column: Early Works and Rarities 1996-2004

[30 June 2005]

By Tim O'Neil

Mahogany take shoegazing to new and scientifically precise heights. It’s quite possible you might find the term “shoegazing” to be a pejorative appellation, but it’s really quite accurate. This is not music for dancing or jumping up and down, this is definitely music for quiet contemplation, and perhaps a bit of wistful sighing at old photographs. Slightly whimsical but permeated with an abiding sense of melancholy, Mahogany create heart-breakingly beautiful musical accompaniment for the breaking of hearts and the rising of suns, for slumping your shoulders in blissful acquiescence to circumstances, and for realizing that you are, indeed, looking down at your feet.

Memory Column is an impeccably-packaged collection of the group’s singles and rarities. Considering the fact that these tracks were recorded over the course of eight years, the uniform consistency is to be admired: the tracks which begin the compilation are, qualitatively, of a kind with the tracks that close the set. It’s obvious that these guys knew exactly what they wanted to do from the very beginning. Less desultory than the Cocteau Twins, Mahogany present a compelling view of an alternate universe where Stereolab and My Bloody Valentine had an autistic love child who could only communicate through exquisitely designed sound sculptures. It takes a little while to acclimate to such a subtle template, but once you’ve found your footing these discs will reward careful study.

Every element of Mahogany’s sound is crafted to absolute precision. The sin waves which adorn the package are only partially a put-on—the careful interplay of droning guitars, mellow synthesizers and unearthly vocals seem to have been engineered to exacting specifications. The tones are well-chosen to blend in the mid-range of the spectrum, with few bass notes and only a few haunting melodies (usually vocal lines) ranging above the median. The effect is not unlike that of a massive heavenly choir as heard from a great distance: the massing effect of the complementary tones tends to blur specific details, while adding to the impression of a large and impressively singular sound.

If Mahogany have any weakness, based on the evidence put forward in Memory Column, it is that they can seem overly repetitious. Of course, their music depends on careful repetition to work correctly—droning guitars and synthesizers repeating the same motifs over the course of a four-minute song, all suspended above a skeletal 808 rhythm section. You’ve as much hope of understanding the lyrics as you have of transcribing My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless. These virtues, when taken en masse, tend to make individual tracks blur to indistinction.

Which is not to say that there aren’t highlights. The first disc’s “Nelly van Doesburg”, with its samba shuffle and minimal guitar solo, is an especially deft evocation of numinous sensuality. “Altima futura automaton” foreshadows M83’s particular brand of rhythmically droning synthesizer melodies. “In fulfillment of the enthusiastic” introduces the cello into a prominent role, and the result is uncharacteristically discordant—the track builds itself in a counterpoint to the amelodic cello in the same way that a river diverts around a jagged rock. “The singing arc-lamp” is merely a handful of chords, played on what seems to be an accordion and synthesizer, repeated over the course of four and a half minutes—simple, but enormously effective.

On the second disc, “Light will deserve a place” is a sweeping example of Mahogany’s lush pop sensibilities. “Wagons-lits” brings to mind Moby, with emotional synthesizers offset against tender, sparse guitar. “Bunker soldiers” is as close as anything on the album to actual synth-pop, with a more robust Kraftwerk rhythm section welded to the group’s abstract atmospheres. “Accelerations” closes the compilation on an energetic note, with a house tempo (!) underpinning the miasma of electronic whooshes and burbles.

Music like this is always slightly out of style, and for that reasons it retains a certain timelessness. Mahogany may be walking in well-pronounced footsteps, but their dedication and consistency craft a unique distinction. This may be a proverbial “odds & sods” collection, but for all that it is an amazingly consistent introduction to one of the better ambient pop outfits of our day.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/mahogany-memory/