Live albums in the field of electronic music are about as rare as hen’s teeth. This isn’t due to any dearth of quality live groups in the field — far from it. It probably stems from the same traditional modesty that informs the low-profile outlooks of most acts. Live albums have the unfortunate reputation as rock star indulgences — a well-earned reputation, unfortunately, to judge by how many acts throughout rock history have used the live album as a cheap way to pick the pockets of devoted fans, a stop-gap money-maker put out like clockwork after the conclusion of each tour. Those of us who love the live album are often forced into the position of defending it from folks with too many bad memories of poorly-recorded, sloppy and downright dull exercises in contract-fulfillment. For every gelatinous live Stones album clogging up the shelves at Best Buy (and Lord aren’t there a few of those), there’s a Live at Leeds or Bless Its Pointed Little Head or Stop Making Sense to prove that attempting to capture the live rock experience on record doesn’t have to be either futile or fatuous.
But in electronic music, most acts want as little to do with farting dinosaur rock ego-trips as possible. So those of us who would dearly love official live documents from seminal acts such as the Chemical Brothers, Orbital, the Prodigy, Leftfield, the Basement Jaxx, Aphex Twin and their ilk are forced to depend on ill-gotten CD-Rs to recreate the live experience. Of course, there’s Daft Punk’s Live ’97, which has to count as one of the best live albums in any genre ever — but it has precious few competitors for the crown of Best Electronic Live Album. The Orb and DJ Shadow have live discs on the market, and Squarepusher released a horribly recorded live show as a bonus disc with his Do You Know Squarepusher? album, but that’s about it. I may be missing one or two but there just aren’t that many.
So, how does Mouse on Mars stack up? Given the rarity of live albums in the context, there’s not a lot with which to compare live04. It will come, I suspect, as something of a disappointment to diehard Mouse on Mars fans who may have been expecting something more exhaustive. As the title says, this album is a momento of their 2004 tour, in support of last year’s Radical Connector disc. Despite — or perhaps because of — their prolific output over the past decade, the track selection strongly favors more recent output, with three selections each from Radical Connector and 2000’s Niun Niggung. Out of nine tracks, only two are from before 2000. While fan-favorite “Frosch” is present, the majority of their output is unrepresented. The patchy quality of the disc is a reflection of the patchy quality of their later material.
Also, and this is a particular pet peeve of mine, the album is not a single show but a compilation of selected performances. Almost without exception the great live albums have all been single shows — despite the perfectionist tendencies of most musicians, the compiled format just does not make a flattering showcase for a live show. Where’s the energy, the momentum of an individual show as it starts, develops and climaxes? Of course musicians want to eliminate any gaffes and errors, but those gaffes and errors are what give the best live moments their personality.
Now that we’ve covered what live04 is not, however, we must look at what it actually is. It’s pretty good. Admittedly, I am as underwhelmed by the selections performed from Radical Connector (“Mine Is In Yours”, “All the Old Powers” and “Wipe That Sound”) as I was by the same tracks on the album. Radical Connector was controversial among the group’s fans for it’s somewhat impish turn towards futuristic glitch-hop R&B, and the live format does nothing to improve the general incongruousness of the format. Drummer Dodo Nkishi’s live drumming and looped vocals on these tracks generally lends an air of early Lo-Fidelity All-Stars — hardly an auspicious comparison for any self-respecting IDM combo.
But besides from the underwhelming recent tracks, the rest of the album holds up well. “Diskduck”, one of the three tracks off Niun Niggung, points toward a more interesting funk-based electronic tempo, with a rock-steady rhythm section provided by Nkishi and Andi Toma on bass serving as a platform for the track’s lumpy synthesizer riffs. “Distroia” is more energetic, with Nkishi providing a proto-jungle rock beat and the fragile melody of the discordant synthesizers barely hanging on for the ride.
“Twift” is one of the best songs on the disc, showcasing an intriguing, partly analog arrangement for a quirky electronic composition. Similarly, “Gogonal”, with it’s weird up-and-down dynamics, makes an interesting translation into the live format. The disc finishes with “Frosch”, and sure enough, this old chestnut provides the disc’s finest moment. Through no fault of their own, the majority of the group’s recent material is simply nowhere near as as strong in this context as “Frosch”, which comes over the loudspeakers like the clarion call of avenging angels. It’s a wonderful note on which to end the disc, but it makes you wish the group had dug deeper into their catalog — the later material is just too cheeky to hold up well next to these golden oldies, and the album lags in places as a result.