and I can hear 'em


Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Code

I guess we're having sort of an impromptu oddities week here at Too Many Words, Too Many Words, as today I want to tackle Alan and Mimi's collaboration with Mark Nelson on his sophemore album as Pan*American, 360 Business/360 Bypass. I don't know how you feel about ambient dub; if you're anything approaching a normal person, you don't either, having probably never heard the term let alone the music. (I direct you poor souls to the liner notes of the Mountain Goats' Tallahassee: "Jussi Bjorling, should he rise from the grave, will in fact put his tenor to entirely novel use by assisting us in honing the focus of our efforts in the ambient dub field. We look forward to this project with almost painfully sharp hunger and hope that you share our admittedly puzzling enthusiasm for it.") Hell, for that matter, I know plenty of people who've never heard the term dub in a musical context, although they'd probably have some idea what ambient meant.

Ambient dub of the type of thinking of, which in my collection is probably epitomized by 360 Business/360 Bypass and Pole's 2, does not in fact consist of versioned songs, but wholly new ones, ghosts of things that never had corporeal form in the first place. But, in Pan*American's case at least, the rich bass throb of his music makes it also kind of earthy at the same time. "Code" is the only track on either release with vocals, and also the first track I heard on 360 Business/360 Bypass by a few years. I downloaded the track from Audiogalaxy (R.I.P.) because of Alan and Mimi's involvement expecting to get something formidably off-putting. But from the moment that subaquatic bass pulse starts its heartbeat thump under the echoing organ(?) notes and the curiously trebly, wiry drum sounds I was seized by something both dreamlike and yet not narcotic in the slightest. Nelson takes about a minute and a half to set up the track, to get the three or four sonic elements lined up and interacting, before the singing starts. Mimi takes lead but you can hear Alan's echoing murmur. At first it sounds as if they're on a loop, with the following four lines repeated three times without pause:

I walked back through the snow
To find a little [indistinct - heart? fawn? one?]
Who would not let me sleep
Who wouldn't leave me alone


But then at the end they smoothly move into the only other lyrics of the song, which only add to the confusion I was feeling the first time through:

And when I turned to you
Broken clouds of insides flew
I walked back through the snow
Towards the sky you fell in through


This is all approximate, mind you; finding Low lyrics online and so checking your ear against others is relatively easy, but finding anything on Pan*American, let alone lyrics for "Code," is beyond my powers. And that title adds to me bafflement - there is no mention of anything that would make "Code" an evocative name. More important than any kind of literal sense, of course, is how it sounds and feels. Mimi's voice (in "Coattails" rather than "Laser Beam" mode) meshes surprisingly well with the rich dubby soup of the track. Now that I have the whole album, thanks to Todd Hutlock, I can confirm that 360 Business/360 Bypass is pretty much Nelson at the peak of his ambient dub powers; opener "Steel Stars" might be even better than "Code," albeit with a cornet instead of those voices; Kranky's site talks about "the subtle coalescense of melody, rhythm and ambience" on the album, and for once the label has a point. With five instrumentals and one vocal track, though, and with the vocal track being on featuring my favourite singers that I heard far before the rest, I can't help feeling that "Code" is the cryptic centrepiece of the whole thing.

The lyrics are of course not miles away from Low's own work, with a similar feeling of vulnerability; at any moment the fairly normal world they depict (which is already sometimes menacing - that thing in the snow won't leave them alone, and since it's a Low track you're not sure if they're being harassed or just judged) could explode into "clouds of insides," and what a masterfully creepy image! That last line, repeated only twice (the structure being first verse times three, the second verse) feels a bit redemptive, even if we're still not sure what's going on. "Code" is even more feeling-over-literal-sense than most of Low's catalog, but it's rich enough that I kind of wish they'd gone whole hog and done a whole album with Nelson around the same time. It's also for this reason I'm curious about the Bombscare EP they did with Spring Heel Jack. Alan and Mimi are pretty much always going to sound like them, no matter what musical setting you put them in. And that's probably one of the reasons I think Drums and Guns is such a success, but you can go back to 2000 or earlier to see evidence of them getting restless enough to see what it's like outside of their familiar sonic confines.

3 comments:

Inverarity said...

Isn't it "broken clouds against ice blue"? Like a Minnesotan winter sky?

Ian said...

Oooh, it probably is. This is why I supplement my own listening with lyrics from other sites most of the time! "Code," of course, was impossible to find online.

Verna said...

Well said.