Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Do You Know How to Waltz?

Like any discography, you can take Low's and start making connections. Certainly that's a little harder with the hard left turn of The Great Destroyer, and even Drums and Guns in unlike any other Low album in a real sense, but there are a few pairs that always go with each other in my mind. Most pertinantly, I always think of Trust and The Curtain Hits the Cast as Low's 'dark' albums.

How much this is borne out by reality is uncertain, although maybe I'll have a better idea by the time TMW,TMW is done. Again, certain non-acoustic qualities may be partly responsible for this; Alan's arm is photographed in this weird light that puts me in mind of David Lynch, and Mimi's drum in front of that richly dark curtain just looks forboding to me. Weirdly enough, for the longest time the title made little sense to me. I wasn't thinking of 'cast' as in 'the cast of a play,' and so I wasn't sure what was going on - if anything, I was thinking of the similar sounding 'mast' and so ships for some reason.

The central fact about the record, however, is that like Trust (which only has one more track than it, despite feeling more expansive) The Curtain Hits the Cast stretches out over an hour, mostly due to a few lengthy tracks, and that length makes it immersive in a way other Low albums aren't always. Does length have something to do with darkness? My copy of Come on Die Young says yes. And there are what feels like more negative songs (both in number and severity) here, from the quaking "Mom Says" to the judgmental "Lust." But what really defines the album for me is the one-off "Do You Know How to Waltz?" which tips the scale at 14:39 and is by some length (four minutes or more?) the longest track in Low's discography.

Unlike other long Low songs, however, it mostly does not sound like anything else they've done. A track like "Lullabye" or "Broadway (So Many People)" (their last relative epic to date) or this album's "Laugh" is basically a standard Low song but with more there, or elongated by an extra verse or two. "Do You Know How to Waltz?" is a two-and-a-half minute Low song with twelve minutes of guitar drone piled around it. That drone is deceptively simple; as Alan says, the song "started short and simple, quickly became the long, wall of noise song. sounds like many layers of guitar, but it's actually just one take from 2 amps. added some backwards piano and rolling cymbal." He also calls it "hard to justify sometimes" as other bands who focus just on this kind of music do it better or at least more thoroughly than Low, and you can definitely hear the influence of a group like Stars of the Lid on this track - or you would, if they had released The Tired Sounds Of seven years earlier or so.

So I do think Alan is selling the band short, although I also agree when he says a 30 minute live version they did with Godspeed You! Black Emperor when the two bands toured together (oh, to see those shows!) was "probably the furthest it could ever be taken." They used to have the MP3 of that up at their site, and it was kind of impressive - but not anything I'd keep around.

The Low song at the heart of "Do You Know How to Waltz?" is actually more of a Low verse; after two minutes of quietly approaching storm the guitar shifts into standard Low mode and Alan and Mimi intone,

One more dance
Before they take away the light
One more spin around the line

One more step
And then we'll turn and face the debt
One more reason to forget

and then the guitar clicks back into reverb wall-of-guitar mode, and the track slowly disintegrates/ascends into a hail of sand or something equally enveloping and caustic. It gives their first live album its title (One More Reason to Forget) and isn't a sound or approach the band has really ever tackled again. Which is for the best; bands that do only this kind of thing have to be able to wring nuance and difference out of very monolithic (and to the outsider, similar sounding) tracks, and having one or two an album amongst Low's much poppier work would just be formulaic very quickly.

The one thing "Do You Know How to Waltz?" does do to The Curtain Hits the Cast, though, is subtly deforms it. All of the albums I know where the last or almost-last track is so massively epic and different from the rest of the songs tend to suffer from this effect - Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, The Decline and Fall of British Sea Power, Secret Wars, Through the Windowpane, They Threw Us in a Trench and Built a Monument on Top, etc. The rest of the record can wind up feeling like just a prelude or setting, and I definitely have to be in the right mood to tackle that much music in one sitting. Three five minute songs seem like so much less of an ordeal than one fifteen minute one, although maybe that's not me. And of course, 'ordeal' is not an unambiguously negative term here.


Nicholas said...

Weirdly, along with Swingin', another early favorite. After such a long album, it's (almost) punishing in it's refusal to stop.

(And, by the way, shares a lot of resemblance to much of Songs for a Dead Pilot.)

Ian said...

Ooh, I'm even more excited to hear that now. There are relatively few albums I like because they're lengthy, but The Curtain Hits the Cast is one of them, and this song is a big part of why.

Michael said...

I'm starting to think of all of Low's albums as their "dark" albums.

oilsofolaz said...

Here's a link to the song you're talking about with Godspeed.


The quality isn't fantastic, but it's nice to listen to.


Ian said...

Belated but sincere thanks for that, oilsofolaz - I had lost my copy a while back, and it's great to hear it again.

Inverarity said...

It's always "they" with Low. And things always happen mysteriously. It's not "one last dance before they turn off the lights" "before the lights go out" "before you don't have to go home but you can't stay here", it's "before they take away the light." Pretty much the most sinister way possible of phrasing the sentiment.

I'm not complaining - the lyric works marvelously well. It's just amusing, is all.

mezhaka said...

Great writing.

"Do You Know How to Waltz?" is something I really wait for when I listen to that album. Indeed the whole album is the way to prepare oneself for that song. Could you possibly come up with some bands\albums which have sound like that of "Do You Know How to Waltz?"

Ian said...

Thanks! Jeeze, that's a question I feel I ought to be able to answer easily, but I'm having trouble coming up with anything good right off the bat.

Depending on what it is, exactly, about "Do You Know How to Waltz?" that you love, I'd recommend you check out the following bands if you haven't already: Explosions in the Sky, MONO (especially a record they did with another Japanese band (world's end girlfriend) called Palmless Prayer / Mass Murder Refrain), Eluvium's Talk Amongst the Trees, a relatively obscure Italian band called Port-Royal (I've only heard an album of theirs called Flares, but that's what I first thought of here), or maybe some Godspeed You Black Emperor! or Mogwai. Good luck!

mezhaka said...

Thanks again, I did not know some of these bands.

mar said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ian said...

I'm sad that the last post here was removed by the author. I might have been my favourite single comment here.