Review: Minor Victories – Minor Victories

I have a theory that I like to call the flimsiness of the long-distance rocker. Basically, what happens is that the artistic decline of a band (if not necessarily the commercial one) coincides directly with the moment at which at least one of its members relocates to a different place from the rest of the band. It could be different country, city, village or hamlet and, despite the massive change in their situation, the band fool themselves into thinking that this new long-distance professional relationship will not prevent them from continuing to come up with the goods like they always have done in the past.

Evidently, things first started to go a little shaky for REM when their guitarist Peter Buck fled the band’s Athens base to live in Seattle in the 1990s. Radiohead is another example. You can celebrate their latest album all you want but, let’s face it, they haven’t quite been the same since Ed O’Brien moved from Oxford to the capital at around the time of In Rainbows. And contrary to popular opinion, the Manic Street Preachers’ creative diminishment had nothing to do with Richey Edwards’ tragic disappearance. The real reason the Welsh band lost their edge after 1994 was because frontman James Dean Bradfield had emigrated to London.

There are many who disagree, but for me Scotland’s Mogwai haven’t exactly cut the musical mustard since around the time Barry Burns moved to Berlin at the end of the Noughties. Thereafter, their albums became decidedly patchier with dodgy dalliances into Errors-lite electronica and at least one single that sounded like a Factory Records b-side trying to suffocate itself with a damp pillow.

While technology might give the deceptive impression that bands should still be able to retain their musical chops across vast regions or continents, MP3 sharing and Skype catch-up-calls are no substitute for regular rehearsals and dedicated communal creativity. The practice might work better for electronic artists than guitar-based rock and indie outfits and, sure, some long-distance projects have reaped impressive results (The Postal Service’s 2003 album is the one that everybody reaches to first), but they’re definitely the exception.

Mogwai’s Stuart Braithwaite is one member of Minor Victories, along with Editors’ guitarist Justin Lockey, Lockey’s brother James and Rachel Goswell from Slowdive. In making this album, they all recorded their parts separately and didn’t even meet up in the same room together until well after the finished product had been mixed. And guess what? You can tell. Their back-and-forth email correspondence and mutual exchanging of sound files has produced a serviceable combination of shimmering shoegaze, theatrical post-rock and melancholic indie but one that frankly lacks much in the way of sparkle.

For example, the bass and synth patterns on the second track ‘A Hundred Ropes’ do work very well alongside the soaring string parts and Goswell’s sighing vocals but the overall effect fails to raise any goose bumps. Other decent songs are similarly missing that much-needed follicle-arousing element of je ne sais quoi. The Twilight Sad’s James Graham turns up to help out on ‘Scattered Ashes’, a sweet and sad little pop song that harks back to the moping heroes of the 80s indie scene. There’s a little bit of Morrissey in there, a dash of New Order, a pinch of the Bunnymen, and so on. Like many of the album’s tracks, however, there’s something coldly formulaic about its structure, arrangement and sounds. If only the musicians had actually recorded together and been able to bounce ideas off one another in person, one of them might have been able to confront the others by raising the important issue that ‘Scattered Ashes’ sounds worryingly close to Glasvegas.

Like him or loathe him, the record’s second guest, Mark Kozelek, is one of today’s most idiosyncratic artists thanks to his uncensored stream-of-consciousness lyrics in which he sits on various balconies and porches observing other people and verbally diarising/diarrhoeaing the minute details of his life. His appearance may add an iota of gravitas to proceedings, though it’s far from his greatest collaborative moment of recent times.

Opportunities fumbled or missed are present throughout, in fact. With an orchestral arrangement that weirdly recalls Kylie Minogue’s underrated masterpiece ‘Confide In Me’, ‘Breaking My Light’ is a gothic power ballad that really deserves more vocal welly than Goswell is willing to commit. Perhaps somebody should have been there to goad a more rousing or emotive performance out of her.

At over seven minutes, ‘The Thief’ is Minor Victories’ longest track and also one of the record’s most enchanting moments. Cloaked in subtly swirling atmospherics, Goswell’s words ache with blue-mooded regret and the music drifts along at its own pace, without striving to show off too much even when it hits its louder post-rock climax in the last couple of minutes. On this piece at least, you could be fooled into thinking the musicians had worked on its cinematic expansiveness in the old-fashioned intimacy of a single room. That track at least is a minor victory over circumstances.

Written by JR Moores