[16 July 2008]
There’s nothing to get you listening to an old favorite with fresh ears like a genuine remastering job. Too many albums getting ‘special’ or ‘deluxe’ editions don’t sound that different from what came before, but as both band and label admit, Mogwai’s Young Team is a great record rather hamstrung by hasty, disorganized and inexperienced mixing. Delgados drummer and Chemikal Underground production mainstay Paul Savage certainly did a good, even great job with the money and time at his disposal, but the record always seemed to me to be too quiet, no matter how loud I turned it up (the middle of “Like Herod” excepted). Listening to the new, two-disc reissue of Young Team back to back with my beat-up old 1997 copy, on the same speakers at the same volume, the change is breathtaking. It’s almost as if you’re finally seeing for yourself something you’d previously caught glimpses of only from afar, or finally hearing in your own stereo a record you’d only heard your downstairs neighbours play, coming up through the floorboards.
Unlike a lot of Mogwai fans and critics, I’ve always said that Young Team wasn’t actually the band’s finest hour. And while my affection for undervalued follow-up Come on Die Young is undiminished, the power of hearing their debut the way the band intended is such that I’m at least willing to credit these two monoliths of sound with equal billing. The remastering job, of course, isn’t just about sheer volume. It’s about tone, weight and color, the way the original Young Team seems washed-out, sepia, faded compared to the vivid ferocity and tenderness of this restored version.
The first thing that strikes you about Young Team, via the opener “Yes! I Am a Long Way From Home”, is just how fluid Mogwai are. For a band where much of the talk, especially back in 1997, was about earsplitting volume and, err, rock action, Mogwai possess a suppleness and finesse you might not expect. Part of the credit for that goes to bassist Dominic Aitchison (witness the gently rolling bassline he uses to open up “Katrien”), but even when Stuart Braithwaite, John Cummings and then-member Brendan O’Hare are giving it some stick on the fieriest parts of “Like Herod” or “Mogwai Fear Satan”, there’s a sense of movement, of give-and-take, that most of Mogwai’s small legion of dumb imitators either haven’t noticed or haven’t been able to replicate.
Take the epochal “Mogwai Fear Satan”, still one of the few real epics modern music has produced (and if you’re about to say something about the Mars Volta or someone… just don’t). Yes, there’s an incredible firestorm of guitar for the first few minutes of the song, and again in the middle, and those moments are as transcendent as anything this side of My Bloody Valentine playing “You Made Me Realise” live can be.* But the bulk and heart of this 16-minute odyssey is in the measured pulse of the rest of the track: the painstakingly managed, breathtaking rise and fall; Shona Brown’s perfectly used flute, the surprisingly groovy rolling drums by Martin Bulloch; the track’s long, slow decline at the end. Unlike a lot of long, noisy songs (even other good ones), it’s actually a journey, and even though the loud bit is at the beginning and not the end, it remains gripping throughout, maybe even more so in the quieter moments. Without all that, you get “Like Herod”: Definitely impressive, but also kind of one-dimensional. It’s the one time on the album the band just tries to rip you a new one, and even there the quiet bits are orders of magnitude more interesting than most post-Mogwai bands would or could make them.
These subtler moments really leap out at you now: “Tracy”, with its prank calls unspooling in the background, centered around a chiming glockenspiel(!) figure played by Braithwaite; the still heart-rending “R U Still in 2 It”, with both Aidan Moffat and Braithwaite on end-of-the-world vocals; the delicate piano fragment “Radar Maker”. But of course, they’re not really where the band’s fame lies, or the meat of the album, even if their quality is what elevates Young Team from ‘promising debut’ to ‘classic.’ The rest is still present and accounted for, and sounds huge. Not just the two, almost bookending epics, but the roiling “Katrien”, almost-single “Summer (Priority Version)” (the band feels they picked the wrong version, but I vastly prefer this one to the one found on early-days collection Ten Rapid, which begs for the kind of refurbishing Young Team has benefited from), “Yes! I Am a Long Way From Home” and especially O’Hare’s “With Portfolio.”
Brendan O’Hare used to drum for Teenage Fanclub, which I mention as I can scarcely credit it. One of the hands behind Bandwagonesque and Thirteen was a member of Mogwai? One they eventually kicked out for essentially being too disruptive (Barry Burns has since ably filled in the group’s shit disturber/sonic terrorist role)? “With Portfolio” is his nasty little retort at something the NME said about him, and it starts out like “Radar Maker” or “A Cheery Wave From Stranded Youngsters”, all gracefully repetitive piano line. And then the static comes in. And grows. And grows. And GROWS… until it’s a shrieking beast storming from channel to channel, sounding as if it wants to swallow your head. As young disaffected/pretentious (and very uncool) teenagers, my best friend Pete and I used to park his family’s van outside the late-night pizza place in town and blast this as loud as possible into the night, turning it down just as the cops came down the street. That’s how juvenile, and how viscerally thrilling, the track was. Now that it’s properly mastered, it sounds downright evil.
Which it should. This is one of those fraught albums that found everyone adopting pseudonyms (“pLasmatroN”! “Cpt. Meat”! “DEMONIC”!), getting band tattoos, worrying the whole thing was about to go arse over tit. It’s always hard to know how seriously to take tales of the recording session (given that this is a band that, as Stuart Braithwaite would tell me about Mr. Beast years later, tends to pick song titles because they find it funny when people try to assign meaning to random crap). But when I heard that “Mogwai Fear Satan” was named due the band’s sincere fear at the time of recording, that they felt the sessions were driving them all insane, it seemed credible. There’s a surprising amount of melancholy and tenderness in Young Team, but it’s threaded in between the psychosis and terror the band is so good at evoking. That mix, so difficult to maintain, is crucial to Mogwai’s greatness and is what makes them tower head and shoulders above their competitors and descendants (ahem, Explosions in the Sky…).
Sweethearts that they are, Chemikal Underground give you a whole (largely superfluous) second disc to go with the remastering in this edition. The rework of the original album is, to be clear, enough reason to obtain the Deluxe Edition on its own. If you have Young Team already, then you need to hear it in its proper form, and if you haven’t then (as clichéd as it is to say it), you are in for one hell of a ride. The second disc is a pleasant enough adjunct or historical document: an unreleased track and two exceedingly rare ones of little consequence, live takes on “Katrien”, “R U Still in 2 It”, “Like Herod”, “Summer (Priority Version)” and of course “Mogwai Fear Satan” in a slimmed-down version. They are collectively good but fail to capture the glory of the band live (Mogwai demand a truly great live album, but all attempts thus far have failed). The one true gem is their cover of “Honey” for an old Spacemen 3 tribute album, rescued from its no-doubt sad environs to join the brief but breathtaking pantheon of great Mogwai tracks with actual vocals. It’s a nice touch, and certainly the appendix a classic album deserves, but the focus is and should be on one of the great albums of 1997 finally sounding like it always should have. Mogwai have always been, at base, just a great rock band (one of the best of their era), with all the aggression, complexity, tension, humour, emotion and, crucially, fun that that entails. They’re now a very different sounding band from the one that made Young Team, at least on record, but it’s a phase of their career that richly rewards revisiting – or at least it does now.
* For real fun, if you can track down Mogwai’s remix album Kicking a Dead Pig and find MBV’s own full-length remix of “Mogwai Fear Satan”, if you synch up and play it and the original version at the same time you may actually see things—I know I did.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/mogwai-young-team/