Tag Archives: Mogwai

The Light Before we Land – The Delgados

At best I get to play drums a couple of times a week, at a rehearsal and subsequent gig or studio session. And that level of activity isn’t constant. It ebbs and flows depending on what the artists I work with have going on, what I can fit in. In the past I’ve played daily, but where I live now, that’s not an option. Still, I’ve played more than enough to know what it sounds like to sit at a drum set and give the snare drum what for when it’s two feet away from your ears. I know how it responds to strokes of different power, what it sounds like when it’s played softly, or firmly, or with violent intent. Recordings of drums, by and large, don’t capture it. They can’t. Mix engineers can’t bring the full dynamic possibilities of the drum kit to bear on most pop or rock material and have it work. The dynamic range of the playing has to be constrained, in arrangement, execution, then mix. Same with the voice, which has – if anything – an even wider possible dynamic range.

So we get used to it and on occasion we have to reassure fellow musicians that what seems an overpoweringly loud pattern we’re playing on the bell of the ride will sound very different in a mix than it does in the rehearsal room. We live with the more or less frequent disappointment that comes from yet another recording that doesn’t sound like we know a drum kit sounds.

But fashions in mixes change, and there have been periods in mix fashion where engineers have got close, and other periods where representing that sonic reality never seemed to be on the agenda at all. We lived through an example of the latter about ten years ago, starting in around 1999 and continuing for five years or so before it levelled off very slightly (it’s still a very dark era in the history of recorded sound).

By the early noughties, with credits on Weezer’s Pinkerton, Mogwai’s Come On Die Young, Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs and the Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin, Dave Fridmann had become a big-name producer, something of an indie-rock Trevor Horn. The sound he had deployed on the latter two records was immediately identifiable, and made those who valued transient energy in drum performances despair. As a result of what’s often called the Loudness War – broadly, the attempt by bands to have their records be louder than those of their competitors, principally through the use of digital brickwall limiting, in both the mixing and mastering processes, and often in recording too – which began in earnest in the mid-late-nineties, snare drums no longer went ‘blap’; they went ‘wap’ instead. Bass drums became muddier and more indistinct as their transients were brutally lopped off in the quest for ever-louder end product. But Fridmann’s work was something else again, so removed from a realistic representation of a drum kit played in a room that it was almost funny. Except when it was being deployed on records I cared about.

Having seen them at the Union Chapel in 2000, I can attest first-hand to how majestic the Delgados’ music was around the time they released The Great Eastern, similar in its sweep and ambition to that of the Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev, but more intimate, grounded in observation of people and emotions, rather than wide-eyed, faux-naif magical realism. The Great Eastern was big – bigger perhaps than it needed to be – but its follow-up Hate was an atrocious-sounding record, big but thin and fatiguing to listen to due to its sheer wearying RMS levels and accompanying digital distortion. A complicated record full of ugly emotions demanded a subtler treatment than it received.

One song works, though. There have been occasions in Fridmann’s post-Soft Bulletin era (after the near-universal criticism of the sound of At War with the Mystics in 2006, Fridmann did dial down his worst excesses) when his approach coincided with the right material. His oafish work on Sleater-Kinney’s The Woods is a perfect fit for the material and the aggressive commitment the band brought to it. I wouldn’t want to hear it any other way, although I can’t listen to it on headphones for more than a song or two at a time. It also, and I have to assume it was by accident, fit the opening track from Hate, The Light Before we Land, which is almost a parody of Fridmann’s production and arrangement tricks: choir, strings, distorted percussion, monstrously overblown low end, furious clipping and digital distortion, unidentifiable sound effects. It shouldn’t work, it should overwhelm what is in mood a small song, but through some kind of alchemy it’s glorious. I can hear in it what Fridmann seemed to be going for, and it makes me wonder why he so frequently missed the mark.

 

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Indie heroine: Emma Pollock

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Sonic criminal: Dave Fridmann

Slain by Elf – Urusei Yatsura

I guess you could say that in the late nineties, with releases by Urusei Yatsura, Idlewild, the Delgados, Mogwai and Snow Patrol, US-influenced lo-fi Scottish indie was definitely a ‘thing’. But what kind of thing was it?

For Idlewild, the Delgados and Snow Patrol, it was the kind of thing one does in one’s teens or early twenties before discovering R.E.M. or Brian Wilson or (in the case of Snow Patrol) Lou Barlow, turning down the distortion, hiring orchestras and getting a little more expansive, a little more ‘mature’ and aiming to create big ‘A’ art. For Mogwai, it was a largely instrumental thing, a Slint kind of thing, and that was more or less how it stayed.

In the case of Urusei Yatsura, it was a Pavement kind of thing. Slightly more aggressive and slightly less shambling than Pavement, but just as bratty and smart-alec. I hadn’t heard Pavement when I first heard Slain by Elf (on, I guess, either early XFM or the Evening Session), so its resemblance to the work of Stephen Malkmus and his cheery band of underachievers didn’t scream at me like it would have done to more worldly (or older) listeners. I liked the brattiness, the rough edges, how they seemingly couldn’t be bothered to write a proper chorus and simply settled for sneering the title phrase several times. It seemed cool.

It seemed, and maybe this was what I liked most about it, like something I could do: get a band together, a few simple chord progresssions, some squonky guitar noise (I never could play fast but had a decent sideline in squonk, as befitted any teenage fan of Jonny Greenwood in 1998) and some surreal lyrics – a Peel session and indie cultdom were surely there for the taking! (It didn’t happen, obviously. I set noise-pop aspirations aside, went to university with an acoustic guitar and fingerpicked my way through my twenties.)

Urusei Yatsura disbanded after Everybody Loves Urusei Yatsura in 2000 and so they didn’t move into folk music, orchestral chamber pop or the sort of rock that seems designed to soundtrack big moments on unimaginative TV shows, like their peers did. There is little information about the band online. Google ‘Slain by Elf’ and you get a link to the song on YouTube, a couple of pages of links to lyrics websites, some links to dodgy MP3 websites, then an awful lot of Tolkien fanfic. When three members of the band regrouped as Projekt A-ko in 2007, they hadn’t changed a great deal. In line with fashion, the guitars were a little cleaner (but not by that much), but otherwise all was pretty much as it had been ten years previously. Which suggests that a love of lo-fi, Pavement-esque indie ran more deeply in them than it might have seemed to more cynical observers in the late nineties, who could have been forgiven for suspecting mere bandwagon-jumping.

On a slow morning in June, 15 years after it came out, Slain by Elf seems refreshing bracing and unpretentious. A product of modest ambitions, sure, but one that hit the mark squarely.

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Everybody loved Urusei Yatsura