Sharps & Flats

Mogwai's migrainous wankery has absolutely no potential for popular appeal.


Carlene Bauer
December 15, 1999 10:00PM (UTC)

Pavement front man Stephen Malkmus once told Melody Maker that he thought Mogwai was the best band of the 21st century. It's possible that the Scottish quintet has already played out that endorsement. The band makes music that is elementary and epic at once, usually erected with nothing more than twinkling riffs, a lugubrious two-step on drums and a sometimes migrainous, sometimes serene guitar undercurrent. It's a neat trick -- once. Performed over and over, on three albums, a remix record and two EPs, it's a rock 'n' roll swindle, one that Mogwai has pulled off with the help of an adoring indie rock cognoscenti.

Mogwai won the hearts of this mostly male cabal because the band's boring, grandiose non-rock has no potential for popular appeal. If members of the boys' club can take the repetitive, glacial-paced attack like a man they'll end up with a musical favorite safe from co-opting sorority girls.

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But this scenario's nothing new. In an act of self-preservation, his indie world is always declaring some group The Only Band That Matters (see Tortoise, Modest Mouse, Cat Power, Sleater-Kinney, etc). Sometimes it's easy to see what the fuss is about, but Mogwai make it difficult. On "EP + 2," a follow-up to this year's "Come On Die Young," the band continues to move away from the loud-soft terrorism practiced on "Young Team" (1997) and toward a majestic, menacing calm layered with the occasional wash of horns, piano trills or found sound. To say anything more profound about the EP would require spending some time staring at the speakers, waiting for enlightenment and settling for the uneasy feeling that the indie rock cabal knows more than you do. The music must be as transcendent as they say it is, right? Especially with portentous song titles like "Burn Girl Prom Queen" and "Rage: Man."

"Rage=This Girl Critic" is more like it. Because I tried to appreciate the record and ended up with the same complex I got from attending Mogwai's 1998 CMJ Music Marathon show, which I caught on the advice of a friend whose praise of the band was as hyperbolic as Malkmus'. I don't know what I was expecting, but it wasn't a bunch of Scottish kids grinding out a horrific guitar evil without a climax in sight. When I glanced around the cramped furnace of a bar to see if I was the only one in pain, it seemed that some rock 'n' roll rapture had occurred. Those of us who weren't in the know -- or who weren't stoned -- had been left behind on Earth to weather some apocalypse brought down by five Druidlike soccer thugs shrouded in hooded sweatshirts and hunched over their instruments.

This sight must have been unbearably lovely to the guy next to me, because he was leaning against the wall, eyes closed, a smile on his face, looking very much like he was enjoying the abuse. A girlfriend stood next to him, looking puzzled but still game. We were two of the only females in a room packed with sweaty boys going apoplectic from all the instrumental flogging. Which now makes me think that pity, not paranoia, should be the proper response to all those bewitched boys: making sound critical judgments must be awfully difficult to manage when your hands are so full of wankery.


Carlene Bauer

Carlene Bauer is an editor at Elle magazine.

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