Government Commissions: BBC Sessions 1996-2003


    Over the course of four albums and a handful of EPs, Mogwai has
    perfected its brand of slow-burn, largely instrumental rock that favors
    texture and repetition over structure, tension and release over
    immediate gratification. The Scottish quintet’s music has always had
    its own progressive logic, creeping forward slowly and deliberately,
    like molten lava or an advancing glacier. Mogwai proved with their 1997
    debut, Young Team, that their minimalist approach could result
    in music of startling emotional depth. But there’s a fine line between
    “minimalist” and “boring,” and sometimes Mogwai recalls the less
    majestic forces of nature, sounding more like growing grass than
    shifting tectonic plates. The studio re-recordings on Government Commissions: BBC Sessions 1996-2003 magnify both sides of Mogwai, documenting the band’s power as well as its ponderousness.


    These versions of Mogwai “songs,” mostly recorded in-studio for BBC
    programs with the late John Peel and Steve Lamacq, don’t differ much
    from their album counterparts. But even if there are few substantive
    changes, the BBC mixes are so stunningly clear that each song sounds
    new. The perfectly balanced warmth of “New Paths to Helicon Pt. II”
    lends the song an austerity that it lacked on the Ten Rapid
    compilation, released in 1997. Same goes for “Pt. I,” whose triumphant
    climax now crackles and blooms with the lushness of a My Bloody
    Valentine song. The apocalyptic riff at the center of “Like Herod,”
    monstrous enough on Young Team, rips a hole in the space-time
    continuum with the new mix, and this time it’s followed by five minutes
    of the most glorious white noise you never wanted to hear. Clocking in
    at eighteen minutes, the Government Commissions version of “Like Herod” is longer and more cathartic than the original, which sounds tinny in comparison.

    If the pristine sound of Government Commissions intensifies
    the beauty and power of its more engaging tracks, it also emphasizes
    just how tedious the weaker tracks are. Stripped of the monologue and
    charming vocal melody from its Young Team version, the BBC
    reading of “R U Still In 2 It” becomes a boring two-chord snore of a
    tune. The crescendo that consumes the second half of “Stop Coming to My
    House” sounds even less transcendent than the stillborn swell on 2003’s
    Happy Songs for Happy People. It’s not the fault of the recording; it’s just that there wasn’t much there to begin with.

    Like all of their “post-rock” peers, Mogwai straddles the line between profundity and preciousness. And if Government Commissions
    captures this a little too well, it’s all in the name of presenting the
    band as it is, warts and all. Given that the performances on Government Commissions
    span seven years and are not sequenced chronologically, it’s amazing
    how well the disc works as an album. Recent post-rock converts should
    appreciate it as an introduction to the band’s work, but for seasoned
    Mogwai fans, even the most beautifully recorded career retrospective is
    still just a career retrospective. Aside from their treatment of “Like
    Herod,” the band doesn’t do enough with their songs here to make Government Commissions essential.

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