Friday, April 14, 2006

About That Last Post Of Mine…

For those of you who don’t know, Karen is my girlfriend of almost a year and a half now. She’s a mild mannered biology student by day and a back-flipping gymnast by night, and as such she is almost too awesome. More to the point, she’s also been in various amateur productions, and was a very enthusiastic drama student when still in high school.

Anyway, I've talked about my previous post with Karen, and she’s slightly concerned that it makes her seem a bit shallow. Now, while Karen’s fondness for shiny things certainly matches my own, I’d like to point out that any shallowness that comes across in my previous entry reflects a fault in my writing rather than in her judgement.

The post in question is a streamlined version of an actual conversation we’d had, which is supposed to dramatise some of the ideas I was dealing with in the Mogwai post. Bearing this in mind, I think it’s obvious that I’ve distorted both of our viewpoints in the name of thematic cohesion, and I hope both Karen and the rest of the world will forgive me for this bit of artistic license.

The basic idea was to make myself sound like a bit of a pompous ass, albeit one who has a point, and to make Karen sound like she was enthusiastically arguing for a different perspective. I think I mostly succeeded in that, though there are still some issues that I feel like I should address:

(1) There are only two bits of accurate Karen-speak in the post. The line about the Shakespeare performance being “obviously Brecht” belongs to Karen. I included it purely because I like the way it flows. The other honest-to-god straight-from-life dialogue snippet is the final line, which I kept because I felt that it as emblematic of the weird discomfort some folk have when they voice this sort of opinion. While Karen definitely has no issue with art that makes direct efforts to push you out of the story, while she definitely understands the intended function of such gestures perfectly well, she doesn’t find that this technique particularly illuminates anything for her. This seems perfectly fair to me, but there have been several exchanges between us in the past that have ended like this one did, with Karen shrinking into herself a little, obviously worried that I’ll look down on her preference for traditional storytelling techniques. You can probably file this under “dangers of going out with a pretentious English student”, but given that I try not to be a completely uppity snob about everything I’m not really sure that entirely covers it...

(2) If anyone is bothered by the one-sided nature of this post and the one before it then believe me, I’m right there with you. I wasn’t sure whether or not I was going to publish my original post at all, but in the end I decided that I was going to get back into this blogging thing at all then I was going to have to try something different... something that compressed a bit more of my actual life down into the blog and allowed me to loosen up a bit. I did invite Karen to comment on the post herself, but I don’t think she wanted to invade my space so she declined (damn her eyes!). So here I am… trying to discuss the issue without making myself look like a complete kook.

(3) It occurs to me that I have read every single Shakespeare play, but that I’ve never actual seen a single one performed on the stage. Sure, I’ve seen various cinematic adaptations or reinterpretations of these plays (some of which were good, and some of which were very bad indeed), but I’ve never actually seen them in the way they were written to be experienced. Then again, if you takes that train of thought far enough, you’ll end up bemoaning the fact that you can’t see the plays in the time period and social context(s) in which they were originally written, which is pretty absurd, really. Or is it just an overly literal extension of the desire to examine a work in relation to the events surrounding its creation..?

That’s enough of that for now. More when the mood takes me.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

A Theatrical Dialogue

Karen: "The worst performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream that I ever saw was one where they decided to do it without any colour or excitement. Everybody was dressed in black, and it was just BORING!"

David: "See, I get why it would seem like a good idea to do it like that... it's a bit like Brecht, you know? Trying to emphasise the artifice of the play and make you think about what's going on in a more detached sort of way."

Karen: "Yeah, I can see that, but it was still boring when I was watching it. I mean, it's the most colourful Shakespeare comedy, with all the fairies and everything, and they made it boring... they took out the fun!"

David: "I guess it's one of those questions of how much you can do that sort of art without taking away the things that people come to art for. The performance you're talking about sounds interesting--"

Karen: "But it wasn't interesting! In the best version of A Midsummer Night's Dream that I've ever seen, the actors all sat around the side of the stage on chairs when they weren't on stage, and sometimes they'd read from their scripts while they were making big speeches, and there was this huge band behind them, so all of that was obviously Brecht, but you still got to enjoy the story."

David: "I don't know... I guess I just don't want to write off art that plays with your expectations, and maybe doesn't give you what you're looking for. I mean, I like the more enjoyable and visceral side of art, and I think it's kinda devalued in criticism. It's like... maybe there's a bit too much of an "eat your greens" approach to art, you know? Like, if it doesn't taste nice, it must be good for you. But... I still don't want to say there's no value in something like a Brecht play. Do you like Brecht?"

Karen: "Well... I've seen Mother Courage, and I get it... I get the alienation thing. But the bit where she's beating the drum, that's a really powerful moment, and when I saw it performed they cut away at that point... they stopped acting it and started explaining it."

David: "Ah, now that's strange, cos in the version of the play that I saw, they didn't break that bit up, and that pushed against the alienation angle they'd established earlier. It made that moment with the drum involving in the way a play is supposed to be involving, which is messed up, because it made it harder to take the play on any one level. It didn't quite work as a play you had to watch from a distance, and it wasn't traditionally engaging all the way through so... I found myself sort of fascinated by the weird mix of styles that I was seeing onstage."

Karen: "I think I just like to get caught up in the story a bit more than you do, and I don't always like it when I get pushed that far out of it."

David: "And do you feel embarrassed about that?"

Karen: "A little."
Here Be Monsters

For all the cheeky venom of their interviews, when it comes to actually making music Mogwai have always been an earnestly ambitious lot. For ten years now they’ve been pursuing their oddly modernist muse, throwing out much of what normally makes rock music exciting (pace, energy, vocals, choruses) in favour of… well, something else.

And so their new album Mr Beast starts with ‘Auto Rock’, a simple piano part repeating itself over and even simpler beat while a variety of other instruments pulse underneath. This short track is a masterpiece of restraint, with guitars and electronics pushing against the song’s central piano motifs without ever rising above them in a way that indicates that the band are straining to push harder but holding back. This should undercut the song, but in the end it only makes it a more subtle and complicated work. It could easily be a thunderous anthem (and don’t get me wrong, it’d be a bloody good one!) but as it is it’s obviously affecting without being obvious. This idea is important to what Mogwai are really all about, so hold it in mind and I’ll come back to it in a minute.

Before we get into all of that, though, let’s talk about how Mr Beast fits into the steadily-expanding Mogwai canon. Mr Beast is without a doubt the most direct and concise album that the band have ever made, a fact that is sure to draw as much criticism as it is praise. After all, isn’t the whole point of Mogwai that they draw things out and make them difficult? Well... yes and no.

Taken as a whole Mr Beast lacks both the epic scope of the band’s early records and the depth of sound of their most recent albums, but its slim ten tracks each compress one element of the band’s style perfectly. So: ‘Glasgow Mega-Snake’ lives up to its name, with multiple guitar parts twisting and sliding in and out of each other before rising up to strike; ‘We’re No Here’ takes one of the band’s mid song noise fests and makes an entire track out of it; and ‘Folk Death 85’ sees the band using that quiet/loud/really fucking loud dynamic one more time, as if to prove that they can still do it better than anyone else. All three tracks feature some truly titanic drumming, and have guitars that can easily compete with the best of modern metal. As such, these songs will please those listeners who come to every album looking for noise. This raises the question of whether or not Mogwai are the art-rock Woody Allen? You know: "We preferred your earlier, noisier stuff." If so then some quarters might feel that this album is a "return to form", because it’s the noisiest album Mogwai have made in years. Such praise, however, would be incomplete, because there are plenty of quiet tracks here, and they’re every bit as good as the loud ones.

‘Acid Rock’ and ‘I Chose Horses’, for example, are glorious examples of the band’s experiments in texture, layering pedal steel guitar onto soft electronic beats and Japanese spoken word onto ambient sonics respectively. Meanwhile, ‘Team Handed’ is the archetypal quiet Mogwai song, with the band playing hushed alien blues like all the weight of the world rested on their shoulders.

While all of the aforementioned tracks are gorgeously constructed so as to remind us of all the things Mogwai do best, the most impressive tracks on Mr Beast are the ones where the band stretch themselves a little. Since Mogwai are ostensibly an avant-garde rock band, this happens to mean that their least typical songs are also their most accessible.

‘Travel Is Dangerous’ is the closest Mogwai have come to recording a straight-up rock song since their first few singles. It’s relatively up-tempo and has a traditional verse/chorus/verse structure, but its elegantly obscure guitar parts, half-murmured vocals and jubilant bursts of noise ensure that it’s still very much a Mogwai song. Indeed, it manages to sound both defiant and triumphant all at once, its meaning still mysterious though the feelings it conveys are clear. ‘Friend of the Night’ does the same trick the other way round, taking one of the band’s typically delicate instrumentals and building something more solid and melodic out of it. Pianos rise and fall over a gentle wall of drums, guitar and SFX, becoming more and more emotionally resonant as they do so.

This is where we come back to ‘Auto Rock’ and the question of how Mogwai manage to make music that is obviously affecting without being obvious. Both ‘Auto Rock’ and ‘Friend of the Night’ have piano melodies that could be made into huge sop-rock hits, but as they are they have a strangeness that expresses the same big emotions without smothering them in clichés. And this is what Mogwai have always been about, deep down. The wandering, repetitious song structures and layers of strange instrumentation are but means to an end. The sweet, simple melodies and head-melting guitar noises for which the band are famous are very direct and visceral in the end, and Mogwai’s entire project has to be to make these elements more effective by limiting the amount of tired shite they frame them in. Mr Beast is a bold gamble, as it sees the band ridding themselves of a lot of their sonic defences. To these ears, however, it’s an outrageous success, keeping enough of what makes the band unique while opening up their music and letting its sheer formal beauty obvious to all.

Another cheery wave from stranded youngsters then? Yes please!

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