Reaching the Rock

Smart is chic. The hottest bands today are displaying an intelligence that just a few years ago would have gotten them bound and gagged with flannel and tossed into the dumpster of the local TCBY. But the geeks are winning this time, and bona fide morons like Evan Dando or strung-out half-wits like Perry Farrell are nowhere to be found. The smart movement, led by the ever-changing Radiohead and lesser-known bands like Sigur Ros, Tortoise and Godspeed You Black Emperor!, is gaining legions of fans who are unabashedly proud of their brains.

But even those bands often strike casual listeners as too abstract or abrasive to listen to for any extended period of time. Today's most accessible acts still tend toward either raucous party music or solipsistic background tunes.

With Rock Action, Scottish band Mogwai have created a smart, ethereal album that is also easy to listen to. Clocking in at under 40 minutes, Rock Action is an epic of understatement and ambition.

There are two ways to understand this record. (Okay, maybe there are more, but those ways are worthless and we will ignore them). The first focuses on the deliberateness of each of the tracks. Rock Action relies little on the soft-loud-soft dynamics that pervade Mogwai's earlier efforts. Instead, the songs offer simple variations on themes and utilize a myriad of musical devices to bring out the subtle beauty of each song. For example, the first track, "Sine Wave," is built on a militaristic rhythm of static layered over with guitar feedback and computer noises.

The next track, "Take Me Somewhere Nice," features the whispery vocals of guitarist Stuart Braithwaite and a full string and horn section. But even as Stuart poutily sings, "What was that for?" the song remains stunningly gorgeous and never cloying. Later, Mogwai continue the uncharacteristic vocal-fest with "Dial: Revenge," a more folk-based tune flavored with the indecipherable Welsh vocals of the Super Furry Animals' Gruff Rhys and more than a little of the influence of that band's 2000 masterpiece, Mwng.

Components of several of the first songs reappear later in the extended coda of the lush "2 Rights Make 1 Wrong," re-establishing the themes of the album and setting the stage for the gentle lullaby of a closer, "Secret Pint."

The other way to look at Rock Action is to see it as a collection of mellow songs built around the startling magnum opus, "You Don't Know Jesus," which swells in the band's classic fashion from a simple minor-key riff into a blistering cacophony of noise and soporific guitar. Fully caputuring the ecstacy of Mogwai's live performances, this song is easily the most powerful recording to appear this year. And since the album consists of only seven other songs--two of which clock in at a mere one minute--it's sometimes hard to see the other songs on Rock Action as anything but dressing for this song that completely dwarfs them.

So whether Rock Action carefully spreads its passion over the entire album or reserves it for one immaculate centerpiece, it ranks as Mogwai's finest effort and the most appealing of the "intelligent" albums in recent years. Mogwai will likely be visiting your hometown after school lets out (including a June 21 show at the Cat's Cradle for you summer school kids)--and you'd be an idiot to miss them.


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