Last summer, experimental music label Three Lobed Records issued Honest Strings, a 41-track tribute to guitarist Jack Rose. A few months before, Rose — one of the most respected and developed acoustic guitar stylists to emerge in decades — died of a heart attack. He was 38.
Rose was married, so his friends felt compelled to help pay any of the bills he might have left behind. They donated songs and, in some cases, entire concert recordings to Honest Strings — a sprawling set that's to be explored carefully and over time, like a landscape of virgin wilderness. Most of the collection's artists were, at best, luminaries of the American avant underground — psychedelic collectives like No Neck Blues Band, Sunburned Hand of the Man and Bardo Pond; fellow six-string maestros like Six Organs of Admittance, Chris Forsyth and Cian Nugent; traditional explorers like The Black Twig Pickers, Charlie Parr and Pelt.
But halfway through the collection, the name Stuart Leslie Braithwaite sticks out as a symbol of something-like-mainstream gratitude. His contribution, the simply titled "Song for Jack," is a tender, elegant miniature, the sort of short piece that feels like the perfectly bittersweet byproduct of a morning spent in mourning, acoustic guitar in hand as a pacifier. Braithwaite's inclusion — and the ruminative tone of his offering, too — might come as a surprise, as he's fronted the sizzling electric band Mogwai for the better part of two decades. But stylistic inclusiveness has been an increasingly important touchstone of the Glasgow band's output, for better and worse.
"Jack was one of the only musicians that I saw play in the last few years that just stopped me in my tracks. I couldn't believe what he was doing musically, on the guitar," says Braithwaite of Rose's impact. "I got to know him from when he played Glasgow. He actually came on tour. He opened up for Mogwai, and he was a really tender, lovely person. I was devastated when he died."
In talking to Braithwaite, you get the sense that he's the surprisingly rare successful musician who's never stopped listening for the latest best sound he's ever heard. He enumerates the distinct cliques of acts that have had a profound influence on the sort of music Mogwai makes. First, there was the indie rock and grunge of Sonic Youth, Soundgarden and Nirvana, followed by the murky, moody stuff that led directly to his own band's post-rock incandescence — Slint, Rodan, Codeine. But that was more than a decade ago, and Mogwai hasn't stopped listening.
"As you get older, you get exposed to more music and more interests in other music," Braithwaite admits. "That can't help but broaden the horizon of the music you play as well. Over the years, we've all gotten into a lot of different music — folk, hip-hop, electronic, minimalist, modern classical. All that stuff has had its mark on what we do as a band."
In fact, just minutes before our conversation, Braithwaite and his girlfriend visited a former church in Brighton, England, that's been repurposed as the art gallery Fabrica. Inside, 40 speakers in eight clusters of five are pointed toward the center of the space; each speaker plays a different voice singing one respective part from Spem in Alium, a piece of 16th century choral by Thomas Tallis. Named The Forty Part Motet, the installation, Braithwaite says, is "the last thing [he] heard that really blew [him] away."
To be honest, it's been more than a decade since an entire Mogwai album really blew me away, and that seems to have everything to do with Braithwaite's rate of musical digestion. This might sound like the most elitist indie-rock sentiment ever, but their older stuff really is better. They've never outstripped the punishing, radiant and glorious peaks their music found between 1997 and 2001, or between the colossal debut Young Team and the studied but eruptive Rock Action. They've tried, though, sticking with the same generalized ultra-dynamic stratagem they've had from the start. But it almost seemed as though they began to overthink that impulse, surrounding their music with too many electronics or samples, too many strings or shallow piss-takes. The Hawk is Howling, from 2008, epitomized that approach. By trying to expand from their basic foundation rather than rebuild it completely, Mogwai often made music that obscured and hid their original, magnificent designs. They overwhelmed their best moments with unneeded distractions.
But Mogwai's latest and first for Sub Pop, Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will, finally seems to turn the corner. A sophisticated and nuanced album, Hardcore moves beyond Mogwai's former walls with grace and assurance. Opener "White Noise" builds into a wall-of-sound grandeur, but never races ahead of itself, while the gorgeous "Letters to the Metro" uses twinkling keyboards and sighing slide guitar lines to suggest a sunset. Lead single "How to Be a Werewolf" races as quickly as its title suggests, and then fades into the distance, satisfied. The supreme bits of rock action — the explosion of album closer "You're Lionel Richie," or the acid-toned gnaw of "Rano Pano" — let the proper Mogwai foundation show. Now, at last, it's more augmented than encumbered by two decades of zealous listening and learning.
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