Tuesday, May 22, 2007


Out of all of the other band blogs I've read, it will come as no surprise to those who know me (or to its author) that my favourite is Mike Powell's EMOTIONAL KARAOKE. There are many reasons for this - I know and like Mike, as far as his writing goes I am his biggest/most vocal fan, I love the Mountain Goats - but the key one is actually the way in which that blog stands out from the rest of us wonks. Mike has no pretense to covering all of Darnielle's work (although I secretly hope he winds up doing so), he only writes for the duration of the song, and although you'll certainly find out a lot about the music of the Mountain Goats you'll also find out a lot about Mike.

He and I were talking about it briefly today, and I mentioned that this approach appealed to me so much because glenn mcdonald was/is a serious formative influence on me. I came to The War Against Silence at a young age, when it was halfway done, and read backwards and forwards at once. I've read the entire thing, all 500 entries (it did effectively end with "A Truce," although there have been occasional updates since) and twelve years, and the damn thing made me cry more than once. If it ever came out in book form, I would spare no expense. Although glenn and I don't come close to agreeing about many bands (and to quote the man himself, "I distrust anybody whose tastes don't seem demented"), he introduced me to so much (including, as previously noted, Low) and reformed my notion of what music criticism is or can be to the point where I wanted to do it. And more than that, he set an ideal for me; that if you read enough of a person's work you can go some way towards knowing the person. Mike's blog is a more concentrated, devastating application of that insight, and since I like Mike as a person I can't help falling for his blog.

But as we were talking, and he was saying why he started the blog (not having heard of Matthew's R.E.M. blog or any of the others), I tried to think about why I started this one. As with many important or semi-important decisions in my life (going to Guelph, switching to Philosophy, dating this girl or that girl, moving to the building I'm in, starting blogging in general) I can't locate the decision in retrospect. There are/were reasons, I'm sure, but I can't find them. One thing that did occur to me, especially in the wake of yesterday's entry on "Alone" (and yes, I am getting to a song today, give me a minute), is that I approached Too Many Words, Too Many Words partially as a challenge. Tom's article questioned what exactly I was going to find to write about, and part of the point of this to me is that I don't know. I want to find out what I'm going to write about, and to see what I can learn. Hopefully my love for Low won't get pulped in the process. But it's also and it must also be a self-interrogating process. I can't and won't try to look at these songs in a vaccuum; instead one of the things that's going to happen as I go along is that I'll begin "revealing the mathersness of it all" to use Mike's phrase. I don't know what it will say about me, or about Low, or about our relationship, and that's part of the satisfcation (and scariness) or doing one of these every week day. I have to write one of these, whether I want to or not, just to see what comes out.

So why "Shame" today? Well, partly because it came up randomly on my iTunes and fits my mood today. Partly because I certainly have my share of embarrassment related to glenn; he, naturally enough, prompted some truly grotesque fan mail from me. At one point, about to start my first column for the student newspaper, I asked him if I could possibly use his title for it, because I couldn't think of a better name than "The War Against Silence." You have no idea how much I am cringing remembering that email, but glenn was very nice about it. So a song where the chorus line is "Shame of it all" seems fitting.

Except, "Shame" doesn't seem chagrined or ashamed at all to me. Long Division one of my favourite Low albums, certainly my favourite of the ones from their first period (my other favourites would be Trust and Drums and Guns), the one where even the poppier songs (and by poppy I really do just mean a catchy refrain) seem weightless and immovable. Unsurprisingly for a nearly four minute Low song, there are seven lines including all repetitions:

A long time you waited
You thought it had abated
Shame of it all

The harm that it causes
Pours down like a faucet
Shame of it all
Shame of it all

Although he was talking about their live show (and he was right about that), I think you can see here something of what glenn says about how terrifying Low can be when you actually experience how sparse a lot of their music is. It's one thing to think that Low doesn't sing very much, but another to see it in front of you like that. I could have sworn there was more to "Shame" - maybe not another verse, but at least more passes through the nominal refrain; that phrase looms too large in my experience of the song to occur a mere three times. And the way Alan and Mimi stretch out and blur the word 'shame' is practically an alchemical act had me swearing that there must be a 'the' in front of it, but there isn't. It takes until the 2:30 mark to get to the last line, but much of the beginning and end of the song is just Alan's painstakingly pointillist guitar part (Zak and Mimi just go so slow and steady that I'm reminded of a good ambient dub record, and maybe that means tomorrow I should tackle "Code"). Alan wrote of "Shame" that "this song was an important step for us. it was vocally challenging and pushed our musical 'skills' at the time." Certainly they've progressed; to a non-musician neither the vocal nor the guitar part sound terribly challenging, and certainly not much harder than what they would routinely do on records since. But the effect is powerful: As with most of the best stuff on Long Division it feels like time stops when I listen to "Shame" and it also makes me want to follow it up with more Low (nothing else seems appropriate).

And, as said, it doesn't seem like a negative song to me. In fact, the way Mimi sings the lyrics and the way she and Alan almost relax into the word 'shame' strikes me as... a little decadent. Now, I'm not saying that was the intent, as I think this is definitely a case where my interpretation is idiosyncratic (and probably 'wrong,' depending on what you mean by that). But despite the line about harm I can't help connecting "Shame" with the kind of feeling I have when I blow off reading an essay to go hang out with a friend, or spend the day playing a computer game instead of writing a funding application, or order a pizza instead of cooking, or 'forget' to set my alarm so I can sleep in, and so on. "Shame" doesn't feel like tacit approval of that so much as the sound of my sense of responsibility running up against the fact that I don't really feel shame about these things, which hedonism nearly always wins out. "Oh, the shame of it all" I think as I drag my unemployed ass out of bed at one in the afternoon, but I don't really feel bad. I'm not sure what it is in my subconscious that inverts the song like that, but I suppose the short version would be that "Shame" is too pretty a song to feel bad about.

No comments: