Album reviews: Mogwai | Iron & Wine | Liars
Mogwai may have turned down the volume a touch and put a greater emphasis on melody and arrangement, but brute power is never far away on their new album
Mogwai: Every Country’s Son Rock Action ***
Iron & Wine: Beast Epic Sub Pop ***
Liars: TFCF Mute ***
It has been 20 years near enough since Mogwai released their debut album, Come On Die Young. In that time, they have progressed from earbleeding gigs in the basement of The 13th Note bar to the concert halls of the world, including appearing at last year’s Edinburgh International Festival – a career trajectory which one imagines the band themselves would treat with amused disbelief (alongside the very notion of a “career trajectory”).
In essence, they haven’t changed much in that time – the bedrock of their sound is the tension between light and shade, quiet and loud, as played out across a succession of expansive instrumentals. But there has been some refinement in recent times – a greater emphasis on melody and arrangement, marginally less on brute power – which may or may not be related to their increasing immersion in soundtrack work.
Their previous album Rave Tapes certainly flirted with a new palette of synthesizer parts. In the interim, they have released their soundtrack to the Mark Cousins’ documentary Atomic and, while parts of the western world seemed to go into political meltdown, Mogwai hunkered down to write their first album since the departure of guitarist John Cummings. No wonder that Stuart Braithwaite has spoken of the album as a “shield” against world events of the last couple of years, even offering up some devotional vocals on the track 1000 Foot Face like an ethereal prayer.
Perhaps there was also comfort in being reunited with producer Dave Fridmann for the first time since Rock Action 15 years ago – a number of tracks on Every Country’s Sun flaunt their love of old school indie noise, though the album begins in classic Mogwai style with the calm, steady lulling of the wittily named Coolverine.
Party In The Dark is a rare vocal track from the New Order school of propulsive yet soothing motorik pop, while the distorted shredding, fuzz bass and accelerated drumming of Old Poisons recalls the heavier end of the shoegaze indie scene of the early 90s and 20 Size, the burnished slowcore of rootsy US grunge acts such as Red House Painters.
These alone are variety enough in a collection which weaves together graceful, glacial ambience and escalating epics with the unexpected guitar heroics of Battered At A Scramble – hark, is that the sound of bagpipes embedded into its psychedelic maelstrom?
While Mogwai demonstrate that they can still mix it up, Sam Beam has settled more than comfortably into his Iron & Wine alias. His sixth offering, recorded live with minimal overdubs, is sparse, soft and simple whimsy on the theme of “growing up after you’ve grown up”. Musically, he sugars the pill on Bitter Truth and throws in a hint of deconstructed tango on Last Night but generally he takes a mellow easy listening line with some folk and country seasoning on his most accessible album to date.
Brooklyn art rockers Liars are also now the work of one man, Angus Andrew, who returned to his native Australia and recorded TFCF – an acronym of Theme from Crying Fountain – in an isolated bush environment. Never one to be tethered to a particular sound, Andrew has taken another left turn – including the use of acoustic guitars, he has announced with proud surprise – which has brought him back to more tuneful territory. But there is still a twist in the warped mariachi lament of Cliché Suite, the tumbling tinkling pop urgency of No Tree No Branch and the hectic skitter of Coins In My Caged Fist.
Peter Maxwell Davies: The Last Island *****
In his final years, as he battled against cancer, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ music took on a softer, effortless intimacy which he channelled through his chamber music. These works, imbued with the scent of his spiritual home in Orkney, are wrought with crystalline beauty and ease of expression. The Hebrides Ensemble became a trusted vehicle for Max, so to entrust this flexible group with this affectionate “farewell” album – The Last Island – is apposite. Cellist William Conway’s musicians live up to the task fully, perfectly capturing the soft, mystical colours of the string sextet The Last Island, the melodic simplicity of A Postcard From Sanday, the fluid musical discourse of the String Trio, the deliciously contrasting Two Nocturnes, the effervescent hues of the brilliant Oboe Quartet, and the magical valedictory enigma that ends his final work, the 2016 String Quartet Movement. A moving tribute.
Ryan Young: Ryan Young Ryan Young Music *****
Hailed as “Up and Coming Artist of the Year” at last December’s Scots Trad Music Awards, fiddler Ryan Young has built up a glowing reputation. This eponymously-titled debut, produced by the Grammy-winning Jesse Lewis, can only underpin his standing.
Accompanied by guitarist Leo Forde and pianist James Ross, the album highlights Young’s intensely intimate and considered treatment of traditional Scots tunes, lending them a fluidity which clearly reflects his interest in Irish music and particularly that of his hero Martin Hayes. He can play like a man possessed, but often opens at a languid pace, dipping and swooping, while that old chestnut, Highland Laddie, prompts some haunting deliberations. However, he cranks up tempo and tension in the reel Willie’s Auld Trews, while his wryly titled slow air, Ryan’s Despair, turns a dark night of the soul into an eloquent triumph.