Monday, November 26, 2007

The Plan

I am not, as a rule, a fan of demo versions. Unless I get to them first (something that holds for most of us when it comes to music; broadly speaking, the people I know prefer the cover over the original if they heard it first, etc etc), in which case I don't tend to have much use for the finished version! Maybe I'm just not hearing the right ones; the demos I've heard tend to stick pretty close to what the band came up with originally, but the few I have that actually do something different (even as small as the lyrics changes in Wheat's initial versions of songs from Per Second Per Second Per Second... Every Second) are easily my favourites. Looking at iTunes right now, most of the few demos I have are for songs I don't have later versions of; most of the rest are from box sets. I have demos of Leonard Cohen's "A Thousand Kisses Deep" (two minutes of spoken word, mostly kept in the song but very different in feel) and Mogwai's "Moses I Amn't" (much subdued and pulsing), and they probably come the closest to demos that I feel stand as strong tracks in addition to the original finished versions as opposed to paling beside or superseding them.

"The Plan" (one of my favorite mim songs, Alan says) is a song where I think the demo is better than the finished version by a significant margin, and also an interesting example of a song that from demo to finished version keeps lyrics, melody and structure but has a massive difference in texture, tone and feel. The proper version is the second track on The Curtain Hits the Cast, and although it was never a particular favourite of mine, it worked well enough. "Anon" was creepy enough that having this much gentler, Mimi-sung usher us into the rest of the record (and particularly "Over the Ocean," the next track) was good sequencing. It's simple enough; for once the lyrics start immediately, Mimi measuring out the opening lines to her own barely-drumming and Alan's note-by-note guitar:

On the step you handed me
Pieces of the plan
At the gate you handed me
Pieces of the plan

The rest of the song (3:41, not epic but not short either) is just her repeating the line Can I hold it for a week? Eventually she's accompanied by herself, and Alan's guitar get fractionally lusher, but it never builds up to the kind of grand climax some of these songs do and that the first Mimi-doubling sort of suggests it might.

First available on a Shanti Project fundraising compilation, the demo was naturally enough brought to my attention by the box set. That's what they're for, right? Collecting up all the oddities that never made it to albums, showing you the workings of the band's creative process, all that. But the demo version of "The Plan" is very different (and better) than the album version in a few ways. A mere 2:51, it has the same lyrics and structure, and Mimi is audibly singing the same song as the album version. But Alan's guitar is more spindly than before, and the only sound other than the multi-tracked Mimis and that guitar is a gorgeous, well-chosen echo effect put on the vocals. They swell to greater heights and die down in more compelling fashion than the later one ever does. (there might be a brief bit of electric guitar distortion too, come to think of it) The song begins with just Mimi's voice, and it's so rounded out by long-hallway echo that you'd be forgiven for thinking she's a ghost.* She sings the lines a little faster, but there's still that sense of grace and patience you always get from a solo Mimi vocal, and the odd comfort of the song remains.

She just wants to hold it for a week, so you'll be getting it back; and you can tell it'd mean so much to her. What's it a plan for? Why is it in pieces? Why "on the step" and "at the gate" (both are rather suggestive locations)? Is this a Mormon or otherwise theological thing? If not, what's going on? What going on is that Mimi Parker has a great enough voice and enough control over it that she can make "Can I hold it for a week?" sound in turn liturgical, wise, compassionate, obsessive, loving and a bunch of stuff we don't have words for yet. The album "The Plan" is good; overlaid with the kind of atmosphere that suggests otherworldliness, the demo version is at least seven times better.

*As someone who still thinks the only really good song on the new Spoon album is "The Ghost of You Lingers" and who almost did his thesis on musical hauntology, you can imagine how much the demo seems almost designed to appeal to me more.


Inverarity said...

I have to admit I like the album version better. Very thought-provoking post, though, and it gave me new ears to listen to the song with. The demo version's dissonantial harmony between Mimi and Mimi is really impressive. I like the way it sits on Lifetime, as a sort of apology for the arid and hostile Prisoner demo. (I love the tracklist for Lifetime. They really have an ear for segues.)

I do get the impression that the song has religious ideas at base, but I try not to fixate on that. I have to admit that on this song I fixate on "hold it," which is a rather loaded phrase where I come from...

Ian said...

How so? I confess, that's a new one to me, "hold it" has no connotation to my ears.

Also, is there a non-demo Prisoner out there somewhere? I think I may have lost track...

Inverarity said...

The final version of Prisoner is the track after the demo of Prisoner, heh.

Ian said...

This is what I get for going by memory instead of looking at the box!

ethan said...

One of my favorite Low songs...In the liner notes of the "Lifetime" box set, Alan calls it "Mimi's ode to faith," which gave it some context for me.

"The Plan" would be faith, then, the idea that life does make sense. She knows it doesn't usually makes sense, but she's just asking to hold onto that idea for a while, to hold onto her faith, albiet tenuously.

Anyway, that's my exegesis. I also like the album version better, but I'm prepared to admit that's just because I heard it first. I should go listen to the demo version again.

Ian said...

I think it's a pretty solid one, Ethan... thanks for commenting!