Government Commissions: BBC Sessions 1996-2003

(Rock Action/Play It Again Sam/Matador; 2005)

By Christopher Alexander | 21 October 2007

Let’s get two things about Government Commissions out of the way. The first is that the set is utterly inessential.

True, with the notable exception of 1997’s Young Team, Mogwai must be appraised primarily as a live band (even though, fulfilling my duties as CMG Devil’s Advocate, I feel Come On Die Young deserves a second look). Nominally, this compilation of live recordings should be a better representation than any of their proper albums: it features ten of the band’s best songs, evenly mixed from their eight-year catalogue, all captured in their dominant element. All the same, few of the performances compiled here significantly vary from their studio counterparts. No listener can possibly gather new insight from any of it, unless they possess the obsessive trainspotter mentality that would be titillated by the slight lyrical revision in “Cody,” the elongated tension-raiser of “Like Herod,” and the absence of silly poetry in “R U Still in 2 It.” The only real argument is whether or not the songs are simply performed better than the studio versions, whatever your definition of “better” happens to be.

So that’s the first thing. The second thing is that the first thing doesn’t matter. Or, if it matters, then I don’t fucking care. Few bands have the kind of sway that Mogwai have over this writer. One of my best memories of Jim Chorman, my childhood best friend from New Jersey, is the look on his face when the band did “Like Herod” in Brooklyn’s Warsaw. “Earsplitting” doesn’t even begin to define the caterwauling, overwhelming, beautiful force coming from the stage. There I was, lost in the sheer stupid grandeur of “do do do do WAUUUUUUUUUUUGH! Do do do do WAUUUUUUUUUUGH! Do do do do WANNNNNNNNNH! Do do do do WANNNNNNNNNNH!” I turned to face him, and to this day I don’t think he even saw me. He had this wide-eyed, teeth-clenched grin on his face, like the girl he had just asked out said yes. The band’s North American tour landed in New York weeks before I moved to Olympia, and we caught both area performances. Then the one in Philadelphia. Then we came very close to calling out of work, to drive four hours to see them in D.C.

Mogwai inspired this kind of unabashed Phishlike worship because they reminded us what it was like to experience music as a teenager. It was cinematic, huge, and silly. They could be soporific and morose, but, at first glimpse anyway, that was only to make the sudden loud transitions more startling, and thus funnier. They had song titles like “Mogwai Fear Satan” and “You Don’t Know Jesus.” It seemed like one big practical joke, the same kind we would pull. That proved to be a huge oversimplification; one listen to Come On Die Young proved to us the band were serious with the volume down, and the loud parts didn’t so much contrast the others as much as they jumped out, grabbed us by the throat and wouldn’t let go ‘til they felt like it. This band was tremendous, and they had no problem telling you, either.

So, yes, Government Commissions is the classic live-album as stalling technique in between albums, or a contractual obligation, or maybe even both. Still, as far as transparent cash grabs go, it’s really not that bad. It highlights their comparatively overlooked ability to craft sleepy and gorgeous slow-core. The climax-less “R U Still in 2 It” and “Cody” are deservingly presented here as major set pieces, and don’t feel like place holders until “Mogwai Fear Satan” or “Christmas Steps.” “Kappa,” and “Stop Coming to My House,” both felt small and implosive on record, and scream to life at the beeb. Of course, all of this sounds quaint next to “Like Herod.” The quiet parts are much more nuanced, setting the stage with a false mini crescendo before it dissipates. You have no time to realize you’ve been had again --- those pesky Glasgowians! --- before the bottom drops. Mogwai is a band that never lets you forget that you are on their turf, and I can think of no better example of their commitment to fucking with their audience than this.

I choose to be longwinded about my life story for a few reasons. One, all criticism is autobiography, and I prefer to be transparent about my biases, experiences, and how an amalgamation of the two leads to my (still infallible) judgment. There is also, as I suggested, not really a whole lot to say about this record, even if the band and the actual songs invite a great deal of comment. But the chief reason is that I hear all of those things in Government Commissions, as unwarranted and unnecessary as it is. One listen to “Like Herod” brings me back to Jim’s German Jack-O-Lantern impersonation. Contractual filler be damned, this album has still darkened my CD changer more frequently than albums that are inarguably more relevant and or substantial. But then, that’s to be expected. It was, after all, made for me.