Review Summary: “Special Moves” plays like a “greatest hits” that’s actually worth having, even if you already own Mogwai's complete discography down to the last b-side or bootleg.
It was way back in 1997 that Mogwai first opened their eyes upon the world with the release of their debut album “Young Team”. Calling this an auspicious start to their career would almost be an understatement. Aside from earning critical acclaim at the time, “Young Team” has since been credited as one of the albums which founded Post Rock as a genre and defined Mogwai’s trademark sound to be one of sprawling tracks, which build broodingly to explosive crescendos. Young Team was clearly instrumental in establishing Mogwai as a creative force however, as is often the flipside of the coin when very strong debut albums are concerned, starting on such a high still left them facing an uphill struggle to gain favourable comparisons with their subsequent releases. In this way Mogwai have been struggling slightly for over thirteen years now.
This being said, while “Young Team” was a decidedly strong start, few people would assert that it truly eclipses the rest of Mogwai’s discography. I think, however, that I would be justified in saying that support and acclaim for the band has gradually waned as their career has progressed. Mogwai’s most recent studio release, 2008’s “The Hawk is Howling”, wasn’t really badly received, but it didn’t garner anywhere near the amount of praise which was poured upon the band’s earlier releases. Perhaps Mogwai’s recent releases have been weaker, or perhaps consistently releasing good material is just not enough to keep people’s attention for over a decade. It’s certainly true that While Mogwai’s sound has evolved significantly, there have never been any “Kid-A” style reinventions to really stir up interest in the band’s new material. Either way, as Mogwai prepare to step into the studio once again to start work on what will be their seventh studio album, I think it’s fair to say that expectations regarding the release are not likely to be sky high.
Before commencing work on their new album, however, Mogwai have released “Special Moves”, a live album to accompany their performance documentary “Burning”. The recordings for both of these releases were made at a series of three concerts in April 2009 in New York.
Reading down the track listing for “Special Moves” you can immediately tell that Mogwai are pulling out all the stops on this record. The tracks have obviously been chosen to cover all eras of Mogwai’s career with one or more of the stronger tracks from each of their LPs Present. This track selection makes “Special Moves” feel like an attempt to combine the idea of a “Greatest Hits” compilation with the idea of a live album.
The live versions of the songs here tend to follow the original studio versions very closely, especially on the first two tracks but there are enough differences to make the live versions distinct, which somewhat helps to add to the replay value of the record. In the live versions of both “Hunted By a Freak” and “2 Rights Make 1 Wrong” the highly distorted vocals hang slightly further forward in the mix and seem tantalisingly close to being decipherable, without quite revealing the secrets of their lyrics. The crisp slide guitar riff from the end of “Cody” has been replaced by some shimmering tremolo picking, and “I know you are but what am I"” sounds significantly different with live drumming replacing the drum machine from the studio version and some screeching synths laid over the top of the arrangement.
Aside from hearing new interpretations of these well established tracks, there is one aspect of this record in particular which in my opinion makes it worthy of any Mogwai fan’s collection: despite the fact that it was recorded over three different nights and includes material from every period of a thirteen year career, it hangs together almost perfectly as a complete entity. There is a consistent, eerily beautiful atmosphere which pervades the album from start to finish and Mogwai’s shoegaze leanings are as present as ever with a delicate curtain of fuzz hanging over the record and gently filling in the gaps between tracks. Whether the tracks themselves are reassuringly familiar, or refreshingly different from their originals, the recordings sound well polished and clear, as though each drum stroke and each ounce of distortion were placed precisely where the band had desired them to be.
It seems to me that, whether due to providence or design, “Special Moves” acts as a sort of showcase displaying all that is good about Mogwai. The strength of their material throughout a long and consistent career, their cohesion and skill as a band and their ability to craft exquisite atmospheres and soundscapes are displayed for all to see across the hour and a quarter of music on this disc. “Special Moves” plays like a “greatest hits” that’s actually worth having, even if you already own their complete discography down to the last b-side or bootleg. To me, this release also comes across as an attempt by the band to pique listeners’ interest in their new material in the most honest and simple way possible; by showing exactly how good they’ve always been, and exactly how good they still are at making music.