Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Shots & Ladders

Most mornings (and afternoons) I wake up with a song in my head. It actually took my sleep-bleary brain a good half hour today to connect the fact that "Shots & Ladders 2" soundtracked my slow ascent to consciousness with the fact that I needed to pick a Low song to write about; think the beginning of the book version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, where "yellow bulldozer" swims around Arthur Dent's head for a while before it connects up with the relevant context in his brain.

And it's a spectacularly apt one to have in my head this fine morning; after a night in which I only had to get up every four hours to cough crap up (as opposed to every two, like last night), in which my illness seems to be finally receding but is enjoying kicking the crap out of me as it goes, in which I still do not enjoy the normal, unproblematic presence and use of my nose (impossible to breathe through) and throat (which feels as if there are fissures in it). This entry is actually taking longer than normal to write because I keep coughing, having something unpleasant come up, and then have to go to the kitchen sink to deal with it.

Too much information? Oh, give me a break; it's just a head cold, it's just phlegm, and if you haven't had to deal with it before I'd love to know your secret. I don't normally get sick (and I think the fact that increasing frequency of annoying colds, etc, coincide with my attending grad school is telling), but I have been sick as the proverbial dog for a week or two and it reached intolerable about three days ago. The good thing is, for the past week when I've been coughing up crap it felt infinite, like this was just an exciting new feature of my life; today it feels as if there's a limited amount of the stuff lurking in my body and every time I go through the incredibly painful act of coughing I'm winning a battle.

But wait - what does this have to do with "Shots & Ladders," and why did I say "Shots & Ladders 2" up above? To answer the second question first, "Shots & Ladders 2" is an alternate version recorded when the band were making Trust, and the version I prefer. This isn't the only time in Low's discography that this happens (see also: "Caroline," "Will the Night," "I Remember," etc), and it seems fairly obvious to me that the only sane course is to treat both versions in a single entry. I may eventually make an exception for "Joan of Arc" since the remix is so strikingly different (and so awesome), but in most cases I'm not sure I have enough to say about the song twice.

The album version of "Shots & Ladders," off of what is probably my second-favourite Low album, is already pretty gorgeous. Alan sings a set of simple, forboding lyrics that close out Trust with yet more medical imagery (if there's a concrete case/person they're referring to, I'd love to know). "Medicine Magazines," from Things We Lost in the Fire, seemingly provided the genesis for much of the subtext of Trust, and as with that song "Shots & Ladders" doesn't feel skeptical of the medical profession so much as despairing of what it can't do:

They're gonna build a ladder
It's gonna take you forever
You're always such a disaster
But all you hear is laughter

They want to keep you for more tests
Stick a needle in your chest
And send you home to your own bed
And kiss your beautiful forehead

See how you feel in the morning

(once again, that's the whole set of lyrics, for a 7:51 song; when they're this short, and this evocative, I tend to like posting all of them)

Mimi is there too, but more colouring in the background. Over them there's a gauzy layer of often gorgeous ambience, violins and static and creaking (and possibly Mimi's voice again) and after that last line the whole thing just... gestates for three minutes. It's the last song on Trust and it seems locked in this glorious stasis, the loops involved churning over and never really getting anywhere, a striking way to end a long and ambitious record.

"Shots & Ladders 2," however, features Mimi in the lead and "Alan's foot, very loudly." These are two things that almost automatically make me love a song more (as much as I do love Alan's vocals/persona/what have you). That foot, dryly thumping away, is the first thing you hear; then they start singing, more equal than on the original but the slightly phased (not sure what actual effect was used) vocals of Mimi slightly to the front. It's the same lyrics, and until "But all you hear is laughter" it's just those voices and the foot, then the part of the original that could be a keyboard or Mimi's distorted voice comes in. It's much quieter than the album version at first, but after they go through the lyrics (including a much more despairing read of "see how you feel in the morning...") the song slowly builds up the layers present in the original plus some terrifically distorted guitar (or guitar-like noise); if "Shots & Ladders" is painfully ambivalent about the patient's fate, "Shots & Ladders 2" reminds me a bit of what I've heard of Jacob's Ladder (and the stories my mom told me about that movie when I was young don't make me eager to check it out).

Both are fantastic versions of the song, but when it came time to decide which to keep in my playlist in addition to on my shelf, "Shots & Ladders 2" just seemed more striking and dramatic - not necessarily a plus when ending Trust (in fact I think they made the right choice), but better as a standalone. Also weighing in for that version is the fact that at 6:47 it loses nearly a minute from the album's rendition, as I am a huge fan of brevity.

Having "Shots & Ladders 2" weaving through my head as I woke up sick this morning, I didn't feel doomed, just wryly aware of how little a doctor could do for me at this point. Drink lots of fluids, get some sleep, take something for your throat; gee, thanks. Today's world seems like a coarse mixture of the future we were always waiting for and the ever-more primitive past; our inability to deal with colds shouldn't feel so much like the latter, but it does, and it's that kind of feeling I get most strongly with this song. "Shots & Ladders" evokes, of course, the children's game Snakes & Ladders, and anyone who played that in their youth knows how arbitrary and unfair it seemed at times.


Inverarity said...

I didn't realize until I did a search on the lyrics a while ago, but "Shots and Ladders" is a drinking game based on the board game. Which rather surprised me. Obviously Alan's referring to a different kind of shot.

Anonymous said...

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!

Ian said...

Hey, thanks! I really do have to update this again soon. Don't worry, it'll happen at some point...

Yan Basque said...

Was "Shots and Ladders 2" released anywhere? I've never heard it and don't know where to look for it. Thanks.

Ian said...

Hey Yan, sorry for the delay, I was out of town. I'm not sure why I never mentioned it in the post (except for the tags), but "Shots & Ladders 2" is on the Lifetime of Temporary Relief box set that Low put out. Very worth your while.

Yan Basque said...

Thank you. I will check it out.