Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Down by the River

Back in the Audiogalaxy days I ran into something that purported to be Low covering Neil Young's immortal Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere chestnut "Down by the River" (you know, where Neil shot his lady). Along with "Cowgirl in the Sand" from the same record "Down by the River" was one of the songs that convinced me that I did in fact love the electric guitar and Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere will probably always be among my favourite albums, so I salivated at the prospect. In retrospect, that was one of the most exciting things about Audiogalaxy/Napster/etc - the way you could find stuff you never, ever would have guessed a band would do.

It was slightly less exciting to discover that "Down by the River" dated from the split In the Fishtank EP that Low did with the Dirty Three, a band I did not know at the time (Whatever You Love, You Are has since become a favourite). Even more than that, though, and even sooner, I was profoundly disappointed in the song's extremely low levels of thrust even for Low. I haven't heard the rest of the EP, having never stumbled onto it, and back when I was younger this track kind of steered me away from seeking it out on trips to Toronto and the like.

Whereas Young's original fills its 9:13 with scorching, furious guitar and repeated vocal crescendos, the 9:37 that Low and the Dirty Three create begin with a full 5:30 or so of restless, almost formless spots of noise, something that might be tuning up, radio static, the worlds quietest, non-horn using free jazz band, sounds that remind me a bit of the opening and closing sections of Spiritualized's great "Rated X."

At at the three hundred and thirty second mark, all we get is a brief hint that the guitar (Alan's?) is going to repeat the figure from "Down by the River." Mimi starts singing around the six minute mark, and the rest of the song gets more and more conventional although remaining slowly paced and lovingly low key. But by 7:45, even that constant background hum of static drops out, and we're left with Mimi, Jim White's drums, Zak's bass and Mick Turner and Alan's guitars. Warren Ellis' violin never makes an appearance, which is a damnable shame. The chorus doesn't get sung until after the static recedes.

It's an incredibly odd choice at first, shoehorning most of the appeal of the track, and all of it that sounds like its ostensible source material into the back half and mostly the back third. You do get what you came for (Alan and Mimi's wonderful chorus, the way Jim White's drumming both meshes with Low perfectly and does things completely differently from Mimi, suggesting a different direction that one might argue they've belatedly followed with Drums and Guns), but first you get quite a bit else, and that else is even fairly off-putting.

The genius of the cover however, as revealed by further play, is the way that the glowingly hymn-like delivery of the Young song arises from the shattered, quiet mess that rattles around the track art first. It's as if you're rooting through a trash heap and as you continue one by one pieces lock into place until suddenly you're looking at a watch or something, one which is wholly unexpected and yet perfectly natural. In retrospect you can remember feeling something which wound up being the gears coming together into a system, but at the time it just felt like another shift in the pile of junk.

I don't have too many Neil Young covers (pretty much this and Mercury Rev, a little stoned, singing "Cortez the Killer" on a Deserter's Songs-era radio show), but I'd guess that even if I had a dozen more I wouldn't find them as satisfying as I now find the prolonged, audible birthing process of "Down by the River," which seems a lot more precious when you hear it in this form. The Low of 1999 were never going to do a raging, full-on version of the song and it probably wouldn't work anyways. But hearing it dilated like this is like watching The Deer Hunter, where the lengthy prologue makes the rest more effecting, especially now that I've heard the Dirty Three and can tell how careful a balance of both bands' sounds the song is.

Also, and you can guess what I've been doing recently, listening to Low and the Dirty Three's "Down by the River" a second time is like watching the "Wee Britain" episodes of Arrested Development a second time, because suddenly all the stuff you thought made sense now really makes sense; those episodes might be the show's best because it finally pulls the same trick on us the viewers that it always did to its characters and lets our own preconceptions colour what we're hearing. The second time we have different preconceptions and those episodes (already funn) become four times as funny, clever, an affecting. So it is with Low's Neil Young cover.


Ian said...

Also, I meant to mention what Alan had to say about it:

one of my favorite things we've ever done. again, the D3 way was the only way to go with this. did one take with more "structure", but realized that the best stuff was the loosest stuff, so this is the second take. when mim comes in with the vocal...

Inverarity said...

I must hear this.

Covering songs is very difficult, and Low is one of my favorite bands for covers. I look forward to your take on "Fearless," one of my very favorite Pink Floyd songs. They don't change it much at all, and yet their spin on it is unique.

Ian said...

I'm going to have to give that one some close listening, because my impression from the few times I've heard it was that they didn't change it much at all and they didn't even have much of a spin on it! Still, it's one of my favourite Pink Floyd songs as well so I enjoy their take on it either way.

Inverarity said...

My god, that's a great (maybe essential?) cover.

Ian said...

I would say essential, yeah. I hated it at first, years ago, but I've really come around to it. I love the seamless blend of Low and Dirty Three sound on it, too.