The biggest impulse behind my budding interest in jazz was simply an unquenchable curiosity for new sounds. But a smaller additional factor did relate to my growing impatience with the supremacy of vocal music. Singing was quite simply every freaking place I cocked an ear, and it was very often the weakest element in the overall equation. The dominance of music with vocalists delivering lyrics is very much a phenomenon of the last century, but it seems to me that it really didn’t assert itself into borderline tyranny until the 1960s, when jazz and classical lost their status as viable commercial forms and slowly became the passion of dedicated specialists. Early rock had a fine tradition of instrumental bands, many of them scoring memorable chart hits, Booker T & the MGs and the Surfaris among them, but as the form gained widespread acceptance this reality largely subsided, with bands mostly celebrated for their instrumental prowess utilizing vocals as an integral part of their attack, The Jimi Hendrix Experience and especially The Grateful Dead being just two examples. Instrumental rock became the playground for serious heads, an often experimental zone that hung out on the fringes of the genre. Brian Eno, maybe the most celebrated instrumental musician to grow from rock’s fertile soil, essentially divorced himself from the style and entered a neighborhood that was roughly equal to if stylistically distinct from the avant-classical work of Phillip Glass and Steve Reich. But there never ceased to be strong pockets of instrumental activity taking place, and the emergence of post-rock in the ‘90s saw a real uptick in well-conceived non-vocal action, much of it informed by the precedent of Krautrock or modal jazz. The work of Mogwai falls somewhat to the Germanic side of the post-rock spectrum, though that’s by no means the appropriate way to describe the way in which they excel. And it should be noted that the band do occasionally employ the human voice into their creative landscape, often from found or pre-recorded sources but also sometimes via guest vocalists or even from the band members themselves. Rather than taking a hard-line stance against the voice, they were instead just refusing to be hamstringed into reshaping their collective ideas around this one aspect, electing for the freedom to choose how to build each individual piece instead of forcing each tune to fit the same template, an avenue that I frankly wish more bands would employ. Early on Mogwai were a bit saddled with their similarity to the legendary Lexington KY band Slint, and while this comparison wasn’t off the mark it often ignored the fact that other influences did rise out of the mix; a bit of Godspeed You! Black Emperor or Sonic Youth here, some My Bloody Valentine or Fugazi there, and as the albums and EPs stacked up there was an increasing frequency of instances that couldn’t really be tagged as anything other than Mogwai. And while I was once perfectly comfortable describing them as a guitar band, as they’ve grown it’s getting much harder to accurately make that claim. Keyboards and synthesizers were always there, but they gradually became far more central to the scheme of things, a progression that really started to become overt to my ears with their 2003 release HAPPY SONGS FOR HAPPY PEOPLE. It’s not that the guitar playing slackened or lost importance, it’s just that the weapons in the group’s quiver were more consistently interweaved. This mode of operation is still very much in evidence on their excellent new one, the nicely titled HARDCORE WILL NEVER DIE, BUT YOU WILL, the band’s first for the Sub Pop label. While Mogwai are predominantly about the architecture of soundscapes and the shifting of dynamics, they can at times also be quite crafty at mixing in bits of concise, almost traditional melodic songwriting. One of the first things that really grabbed me on HARDCORE was “Death Rays”, an extremely pretty six minute tune that alternates between solid contemplative keyboard work and waves of bombastic release. It flies by quite quickly, feeling like half its actual time and it’s hard to not imagine it edited down and adjusted into an environment more in touch with mainstream sensibilities. This hypothetical disinterest in sweetening the stew for a potential wider audience says much about Mogwai’s attitude regarding their established musical goals. Elsewhere they wade into less travelled waters. “Mexican Grand Prix” engages with Krautrock tradition and ends up in the ballpark of a more aggressive Stereolab. “San Pedro” is a very direct mid-tempo rocker, very unusual for them, so unlike their other material that if tested in a game of Guess The Band by a catty associate I’d certainly have been stumped. “George Square Thatcher Death Party”’s aggressive bass feels like late-‘80s indie rock, the keyboards and effect-laden vocals unabashedly recall the new wave, and the grouchy guitar holds these opposing sides together like wallpaper glue. “How To Be a Werewolf” hits all sorts of unlikely spots, percolating a bit like long-and-sadly-gone fellow Brits Ganger before a cascade of guitars heads into almost Wedding Present (!) territory and from there launches into a flurry of very atypical, nearly Mascis-like soloing. Holy smokes. The other cuts simply radiate like Mogwai, a band that’s running up on fifteen years of existence with nary a trace of fatigue. I didn’t really start getting into their stuff in earnest until roughly two years ago, so I’m still too fresh to really pick a favorite. But I don’t know if the concept of personal faves is really conducive to their discography. Their development has been spread so well across the LPs and the general quality realized on such an even keel that it almost feels like each album is a natural extension of those before or after, one long sequence with an equality of rewards across the whole span (this shouldn’t be read as the records sounding the same. This album and 2008’s THE HAWK IS HOWLING are markedly different). So for a person curious about Mogwai’s achievement, HARDCORE WILL NEVER DIE, BUT YOU WILL is as fine an entry point as any and it comes with the satisfaction that there is much more from whence it originates. How bonus.
By the time I first heard N.W.A.’s STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON, I was already a hip-hop convert. That didn’t really prepare me for the unbridled onslaught of the record, though. While there was already precedent for the gangsta rap style, notably Schoolly D and Boogie Down Productions’ essential CRIMINAL MINDED, it was COMPTON that really put the form on the map, taking obscenity drenched street anger to the well-scrubbed suburbs where masses of young minds were positively starved for something raw, unstable and ideologically dangerous. It was 1988. The end of the horrid beast that was the Reagan-era, but it sadly looked like nothing new was under the sun. Up to that point, I was severely under the sway of much of the Def Jam roster, Public Enemy in particular, in addition to the smooth science of Eric B and Rakim, Biz Markie’s inspired pranksterism, and assorted cuts from such worthies as Rob Base and DJ Easy Roc and Tone-Loc (I maintain that “Wild Thing” is one of the ’80s best singles). Rap was past its embryonic stage and had spread nationwide due in large part to Run DMC and LL Cool J, but it was still very much about studied, casual braggadocio and the intricate science of rocking the party. Public Enemy’s masterful second album erupted with anger and introduced a new wrinkle into the hip-hop spectrum, but it was cloaked in righteousness and an intellectual sensibility, and Rick Rubin’s comment that it was like black punk rock was very much on the money. N.W.A. differed wildly in their approach, documenting and exalting the grim circumstance of ghetto life with no apologies. They also differed musically from PE’s shrill, razor sharp, siren laden atmosphere, which while hard as nails was also very dexterous and complex. Instead, STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON’s driving, sample-heavy tactic eschewed subtlety in favor of a blunt attack that was like being hit with a rhythmic barrage of fists. The cumulative effect resulted in an explosion that’s still being felt to this day. Extremely controversial, particularly with alarmist types, N.W.A helped usher in a shift in the mainstream miscomprehension of hip-hop, which for many was disdained but tolerated as a lingering fad. Folks generally confused or annoyed by the music could now act scared. Parents disliked The Beastie Boys because they paraded around like ill-behaved cretins. N.W.A made them afraid they’d come home to find Ice Cube with an Uzi forcing their daughter to smoke a bag full of crack. And this points to one of COMPTON’s deepest, most effective elements. It exposed and exploited the unease of a large segment of the populace, taking a big hunk of urban reality and then turning it on its head to produce a caustic theatre of those people’s worst fears/fantasies. They sell drugs. They rob and kill people. They mistreat women. Actually, they’re a group of musicians, and they survived the harsh environment of their city to create an album that shed much light not only on the circumstances of their difficult background but also on the divide of class and race in the late ‘80s and the repugnant nature of many people’s misconceptions. Of course, this mingling of reality and perception is curiously in the largely cinematic tradition of Americans rooting for the bad guy: Bonnie & Clyde, the Corleone Family, pick yr favorite Scarface (mine’s Paul Muni). And it also just happens to sound great when bumping from overtaxed speakers while driving around on an aimless Saturday night. Just don’t let the fuzz pull you over while blasting “Fuck the Police”. If vulgarities directed at law enforcement worries you, well don’t let it. This sort of thing happens a lot. Hell, if I had a buck for every time someone spit a blue streak of expletives over the cops handing them a ticket, I’d go buy my own country. N.W.A. just got it down on tape, adding another song to the long list of anti-authoritarian classics. The double-LP 20th Anniversary Edition of STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON is a fine thing to hear, featuring a whole slab of bonus tracks and remixes, and any serious hip-hop collection basically requires it. Right from the massive opening title track the course is set, Dr. Dre and DJ Yella scientifically crafting the sound and Ice Cube, MC Ren and Easy E talking vast mouthfuls of smack like the stuff was going extinct. It stands as a scathing, vital document of its period, and while its relevance has shifted, its quality remains solidly intact.