and I can hear 'em


Thursday, May 31, 2007

Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me

Actually, last night I dreamt that I was stranded on some sort of jungle planet with one other guy and a bunch of the xenomorphs from Alien. We got across a river, and for some reason they couldn't swim, so we were safe. And then I remember in that dream-vivid way looking across the river through the foliage and seeing this thing - the alien's phallic head jutting out of a mess of carbuncles and antennas and what have you. That's when I knew that they were "evolving" just to get to us. Somehow they'd sped the breeding process up and by impregnating different animals were trying to find a form that could cross the river. A brief nightmarish run from a series of jaguar/fish aliens later the guy and I somehow lost the aliens and ran into this giant (modelled, in my head, equally after Gene Wolfe's Baldanders and Grant Morrison's Max Thunderstone). He seemed a bit dumb but nice enough, and we found a building to hide in. So we were safe - until the giant punched through the face of my travelling companion and I realised he was an alien too.

Now, I can only assume my mind picked up on the Alien imagery because I'd seen it and not John Carpenter's The Thing, but I haven't watched that movie precisely because of my horror of shapeshifters (or more precisely, of malleable flesh). The aliens in my dream still terrified me without headcrabs of anything like that (I'm still shuddering at the memory) because of the way they usurp the bodies of the species they breed through, a series of adulterated forms. I nearly screamed when I woke up and went to the bathroom to find a trash can full of hair (then I remembered my brother gave himself a haircut last night). It's not the biological I object to at all, it's the violation of biology, and my subconscious dished up a particularly obscene and graphic version of it for me (believe me, I am not doing the dream justice, partly because I don't want to try and describe the aliens more vividly).

So I'm sitting there trying to think of what Low song connects to that sense of utter horror and revulsion and danger, and there isn't one. Like all of the great bands I can think of, Low don't cover the whole emotional spectrum so much as they trick you for the duration into thinking of what they do cover as the emotional spectrum. This is part of the reason, I think, why I go on listening binges with Low or Joy Division or whoever - you just want to hit that emotional range again, and it's hard to do that with anyone else, even superficially similar acts. But as I'm mulling that over, I realise that I did in fact have a song by Low in my head, a kind of ironic waking "end credits" song to the horror movie in my head, and unfittingly enough it was their cover of the Smiths' "Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me."

As with "Blue-Eyed Devil" I first heard the cover rather than the original (although it only predated me finally picking up the flawless "Singles" disc by a few weeks at most), but that's much more important in this case because the Low version seemed much more shocking at first. I had already heard "Canada" and "Dinosaur Act" and all the other album tracks that showed Low moving away from their quiet, still existence (which, again, was always more ideal than reality), but for some reason this cover completely caught me off guard.

The Low version cuts off a minute by skipping the crowd noise and piano prelude of the original, which always makes me think of Morrissey-as-Frankenstein's-Monster. The Smiths' version is actually just a three minute song with some padding, but of course the Low version is nearly four. It starts off with Alan's echoed voice and his customarily restrained guitar and bass from him and Zak. But just before they hit "So tell me how long / Before the last one?" these dark, massed strings plunge into the track and for just under a minute Alan and Mimi's now-combined vocals fight against those strings (almost a slower version of AC Newman's "The Town Halo," for comparison) and Alan's distortion pedal. After that the track does one of those slow dying falls that Low are so good at, with just the bass and a solitary, quiet violin(?) and the vocals. By the end when Alan's falsetto is stretching out "goes on" the echo is once again the most prominent element of the song.

And I do love that, the same way I love My Morning Jacket's It Still Moves. I'm not really going to get into the hauntological qualities of echo here (I think I've had enough tangents for one entry), but suffice it to say while the original intro positions Morrissey as a very corporeal monster, one shunned by other people, Alan sounds more like a poltergeist in an abandoned house (right down to the middle section of the song, where presumably shit starts flying), not so much shunned as forgotten. Both make the overly lugubrious lyrics work for them, but the way Alan makes explicit the rage implicit in the original makes it the more powerful version in my opinion. Yes, "Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me" is a sad and despairing song, but lurking underneath that is the curdled anger of someone who secretly thinks the problem is with the rest of the world, not them (...Morrissey?). I've pretty much already said my piece about the psychological geography the Smiths tended to cover, but this song is definitely in the same tradition. And I'm of course not holding myself above that - while my comments in the "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out" piece sometimes seem strikingly naive to me now, I've grown up a lot in the last three years. I no longer identify so much with Morrissey's protagonists, although admittedly in this case I'm not sure I ever did. I do wonder whether Alan does.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Same

With the exception of the untitled and unlisted track preceding "In Metal" on Things We Lost in the Fire (and no, that won't get its own entry) Low don't really do interludes. What they have instead are fragments of songs that serve the same purpose as actual interludes do. I actually prefer the approach, although it's one they haven't really done since Secret Name.

While the difference I'm talking about might seem blurry to some, a good interlude like Slowdive's "Cello" feels complete. It's a short piece, a between-course mint. "Same," along with "Streetlight," "Home," "Dark" and a few others, feels more... absent-minded? Incomplete? Distant? It has much the same role in a album, of course - in "Same"'s case giving us a breather between the romantic conflageration of "Stars Gone Out" and the aforementioned endurance test of "Do You Know How to Waltz?" but it never quite feels like its own song. That's not to say that "Same" and its brethren feel like they could be fleshed out into a full song with more time and space - I'm not sure how you follow up or expand Alan's flat declaration that

I'm tired of waking up with the same clothes
And the same holes in my skin
And the same notes, the same hair and the same words
To the same songs in my head


without taking away from the effect they have. The stasis of the arrangement - just vocal-shadowing guitar, Zak or Alan on keyboard and eventually a backing "ooooh" from Mimi - only makes "Same" seem more out of it, more separate from yet essential to the rest of the album. There aren't even any drums, nothing approaching a pulse. It takes two minutes but sometimes it feels longer than the song that follows it, fitting for what Alan called "the writer's block song."

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Do You Know How to Waltz?

Like any discography, you can take Low's and start making connections. Certainly that's a little harder with the hard left turn of The Great Destroyer, and even Drums and Guns in unlike any other Low album in a real sense, but there are a few pairs that always go with each other in my mind. Most pertinantly, I always think of Trust and The Curtain Hits the Cast as Low's 'dark' albums.

How much this is borne out by reality is uncertain, although maybe I'll have a better idea by the time TMW,TMW is done. Again, certain non-acoustic qualities may be partly responsible for this; Alan's arm is photographed in this weird light that puts me in mind of David Lynch, and Mimi's drum in front of that richly dark curtain just looks forboding to me. Weirdly enough, for the longest time the title made little sense to me. I wasn't thinking of 'cast' as in 'the cast of a play,' and so I wasn't sure what was going on - if anything, I was thinking of the similar sounding 'mast' and so ships for some reason.

The central fact about the record, however, is that like Trust (which only has one more track than it, despite feeling more expansive) The Curtain Hits the Cast stretches out over an hour, mostly due to a few lengthy tracks, and that length makes it immersive in a way other Low albums aren't always. Does length have something to do with darkness? My copy of Come on Die Young says yes. And there are what feels like more negative songs (both in number and severity) here, from the quaking "Mom Says" to the judgmental "Lust." But what really defines the album for me is the one-off "Do You Know How to Waltz?" which tips the scale at 14:39 and is by some length (four minutes or more?) the longest track in Low's discography.

Unlike other long Low songs, however, it mostly does not sound like anything else they've done. A track like "Lullabye" or "Broadway (So Many People)" (their last relative epic to date) or this album's "Laugh" is basically a standard Low song but with more there, or elongated by an extra verse or two. "Do You Know How to Waltz?" is a two-and-a-half minute Low song with twelve minutes of guitar drone piled around it. That drone is deceptively simple; as Alan says, the song "started short and simple, quickly became the long, wall of noise song. sounds like many layers of guitar, but it's actually just one take from 2 amps. added some backwards piano and rolling cymbal." He also calls it "hard to justify sometimes" as other bands who focus just on this kind of music do it better or at least more thoroughly than Low, and you can definitely hear the influence of a group like Stars of the Lid on this track - or you would, if they had released The Tired Sounds Of seven years earlier or so.

So I do think Alan is selling the band short, although I also agree when he says a 30 minute live version they did with Godspeed You! Black Emperor when the two bands toured together (oh, to see those shows!) was "probably the furthest it could ever be taken." They used to have the MP3 of that up at their site, and it was kind of impressive - but not anything I'd keep around.

The Low song at the heart of "Do You Know How to Waltz?" is actually more of a Low verse; after two minutes of quietly approaching storm the guitar shifts into standard Low mode and Alan and Mimi intone,

One more dance
Before they take away the light
One more spin around the line

One more step
And then we'll turn and face the debt
One more reason to forget


and then the guitar clicks back into reverb wall-of-guitar mode, and the track slowly disintegrates/ascends into a hail of sand or something equally enveloping and caustic. It gives their first live album its title (One More Reason to Forget) and isn't a sound or approach the band has really ever tackled again. Which is for the best; bands that do only this kind of thing have to be able to wring nuance and difference out of very monolithic (and to the outsider, similar sounding) tracks, and having one or two an album amongst Low's much poppier work would just be formulaic very quickly.

The one thing "Do You Know How to Waltz?" does do to The Curtain Hits the Cast, though, is subtly deforms it. All of the albums I know where the last or almost-last track is so massively epic and different from the rest of the songs tend to suffer from this effect - Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, The Decline and Fall of British Sea Power, Secret Wars, Through the Windowpane, They Threw Us in a Trench and Built a Monument on Top, etc. The rest of the record can wind up feeling like just a prelude or setting, and I definitely have to be in the right mood to tackle that much music in one sitting. Three five minute songs seem like so much less of an ordeal than one fifteen minute one, although maybe that's not me. And of course, 'ordeal' is not an unambiguously negative term here.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Swingin'

Attempting to repay the aid of a kind TMW,TMW reader I asked if there were any songs he wanted to see me cover sooner rather than later; and while I'm chagrined that "Don't Understand" was one of them (as the old post is pretty wince-inducing for me), I was happy to see that one of the songs he asked for, "Swingin'," was one I was considering doing today anyways.

Although I think Things We Lost in the Fire and probably Secret Name are more welcoming to the new listener* than Long Division, in some ways I feel that the latter is Low's most lovable album. Maybe it's that inside the only real message aside from minimalist credits is "Thanks for the patience and floorspace..." or that Zak's stark cover image is one of my favourites. Or the fact that there's actual long division displayed on the CD. But athough that kind of thing has a surprisingly large effect on my affection for albums (and I think the phenomenon is more wide-spread than people would like to admit), I'm still willing to mostly credit the music. When I was getting into Low I thought of The Curtain Hits the Cast as the best early period album, and I certainly still like that one, but Long Division is a much gentler and more consonant record (not to mention it lacks anything like "Do You Know How to Waltz?"); even the darker songs are more forgiving than elsewhere in Low's discography (to these ears, at least - "Shame" is a good example of this). Which makes my experience of "Swingin'" even weirder - as much as I love it, and as much as it was (along with "Shame" and "Violence") one of my entryways into eventually loving Long Division, I can't help but totally misconstrue it. Let's look at the lyrics, again extremely short for a good sized song (just over four minutes):

Don't look up
I'll have to dictate from the ground
Don't mind the sound
It's all familiar by now
And I'm swingin' so high
And I'm swingin' so high

Unforgiven
Unimpressed by my first draft
She's a sinker
I should have taught her how to swim
And I'm swingin' so high
And I'm swingin' so high
And I'm swingin' so high
And I'm swingin' so high


Why on earth would I suffer from the persistant feeling that Alan sings "Swingin'" as a man in the process of being hanged? Maybe it's the way Alan bites off that last droning "so high" as the mellotron blurts to a close (Kramer's work, and the only track on the record so gifted). I guess the refrain could at least suggest hanging, and if you really stretch it that second verse could suggest a murder or some sort of criminal negligence, and if you're going that far then "Don't mind the sound / It's all familiar by now" is pretty chilling. But I don't buy my interpretation for a second.

It came about partly because with most music that's new for me I tend to only really pick up a few lines here and there, getting acquainted with the song's lyrics more fully only later on, after I already like or dislike the track. Something about the steady thrum of "Swingin'" combined with the refrain and Alan's occasionally teeth-clenched delivery of it makes me think of it as a Secret Miracle-style moment frozen in time, Alan telling someone not to look up as he prepares for the lunge through the trap door. Given the number of listens it takes me to 'get' Low songs the fact that it's preceded on record by "Throw Out the Line" probably helped put the image of rope into my head, and then we're swingin', so to speak.

As for what it's really about I have no clue aside from some dim thoughts of writer's block and playgrounds, and the song backgrounds page is no help at all (just some notes about the mellotron, the chords here hurting Alan's hand and Vernon Yard being unimpressed with Alan's first draft). The singing is both slightly angry and perversely unfazed, just as I'd imagine one of Alan's narrators would be at the prospect of violent death - Mimi is kind of present in the background, I think, but this really is Alan's show. The really weird thing is, even though I know my impression is wrong it doesn't go away as it normally would. Part of me is just as convinced today as it ever was that the singer of "Swingin'" is about to be hanged by the neck until dead, probably for good reason.


*Sure enough, Erik was intrigued enough by this and my passing on of Drums and Guns (which he found a bit offputting) to ask me to pass on some other Low; after a few listens to Things We Lost in the Fire, I think he's coming around to them.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Last Snowstorm of the Year

I apologize if anyone was really upset that I didn't update this blog yesterday, but I can't feel too bad about being one day late on a purely volunteer endeavour I'm doing basically to see what it's like. Unlike Wednesday, where I was in and just forgot/didn't get to it, I spent pretty much all of Friday out. I was out late dancing on Thursday, woke up in time to start hanging out with friends and stayed out all day. I actually spent some hours just hanging out outside, which is rare for me in the summer months as I am a person who hates heat and the sun. But yesterday was perfect, the kind of day that makes me wish we had weather like it year round, and sitting in the shade actually made me glad to be outside, something I normally only feel in autumn and overcast spring days.

I live in a weird area of Canada, you understand. No matter how hot or cold it gets, I know people in Canada or the States who live somewhere where it's more extreme - but I don't know many peopl who live somewhere that hits +40 and -35 degrees in a year (for those of you still stuck with fahrenheit, that's a range from 104 to -31). Our winters can get pretty bad, but I prefer being cold to hot, as you can always put on more clothes and/or do something active. But our summers are just brutal. Luckily the really bad heat only tends to last a few weeks or a month, but still. One summer I happened to work in a steel factory that was reliably ten degrees hotter than outside, and you really haven't lived until you've worked in fifty degree heat while wearing a thick coverall work suit. Ugh.

So the point is, I hate certain things about summer, despite it being vacation time when I was a kid, when I can go swimming (which I love) and despite containing my birthday. But I also understand the traditional Ontarion desire to get winter over with; it's not exactly a bundle of laughs. We have a really weird love/hate relationship with winter, as well as having a good deal of our indentity bound up in it. We make fun of you when you get two inches of snow and your cities shut down. We walk around with coats on when it's fifteen below because it's "not really cold yet." Low are from Minnesota. They understand. They know that despite winter sucking, like anything else you grow up with you kind of wind up loving it; it's odd to have Stockholm Syndrome for a whole season, but that's basically what happens. And thus,

The winter was nice
But the summer is hell

The ground was so hard
The nights were so long
But we suffered the dark
And we wrote all those songs
Still I was a fool
I covered my ears
No I would not face the last snowstorm of the year


The first verse talks a bit about something more abstract (and I'm not sure whether it has any sort of connection to either religion or winter), but the second verse and end of the song are pretty straightforward. Winter isn't great, but you wind up holed wup inside with loved ones, and you get a lot done. By the end of it, you don't want it to end (also, you're not sure it ever actually will end - this happens to me with both summer and winter).

I love "Last Snowstorm of the Year" for multiple reasons: because, like Sloan's "Coax Me" it's one of my most quoted songs ("It's not the band I hate, it's their fans"), because of the slightly mysterious aspect of the lyrics - the first verse and the way it talks about wanting to die when you're young, the childish abnegation of covering your ears to avoid a snowstorm, because it's one of the songs on Trust that is short and poppy and kind of Phil Spector-ish in order to offset the incredibly dark portions of that record (having it set up "John Prine" is an interesting choice in and of itself), because of the way Mimi mostly sings along but sometimes just goes wordless to provide counterpoint, because it's one of th few Low songs I think could make for a rousing chorus around the campfire, and for the way then when I've been listening to it on repeat I realise that it begins and ends on the same sound, a weird descending/ending piano(?) chord that makes sense as an end but is an odd little fillip for a beginning, until it's looped.

But mostly I love "Last Snowstorm of the Year" because it's the only song I know that explicitly prefers winter to summer, and although it's gorgeous now, in the back of my head I'm bracing for the time of year when I don't want to move away from my fan and the thought of standing in the sun is vaguely terrifying (I burn easily). Alan and I may cover our ears, but the song itself admits that we're fools - we can't stop the seasons turning, and winter will come back around anyways. Until then, we smack sleighbells and rue the heat.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Belarus

One could argue that this entire blog (and others of its kind) are nothing more than prolonged exercises in overanalysis, but that doesn't change the fact that there are some Low songs I won't or can't analyse. Can't actually isn't terribly likely - even if I would have found it difficult when I was a teenager perhaps, years of phenomenology have me pretty sure that the human mind can analyse just about anything that happens to it.

With two major caveats. The first is that this analysis may easily be flat-out wrong, may miss what is actually going on or at the least misconstrue it severely. The second is that in some cases the process is only possible via destruction. In order to get a handle on your reaction to something you may deconstruct the thing, or your reaction, or yourself, to the extent that you are literally unable to have that reaction any more. So won't rears it's ugly head.

"Belarus" is a song I did not like the first time I heard it, when my lovely promo copy of Drums and Guns made it's way to my door (the first time I didn't pay for a Low album, unless you count the fact that A Lifetime of Temporary Relief was a Christmas present). Higher pitched vocals in general don't tend to sit well with me at first (I'm including things like Hamilton Leithauser and John Darnielle here), and the song seemed brief and static. The niggling, Susumu Yokota-like string arrangement that pokes through between the song's two verses and prods the second verse forward I don't think I even noticed, although I now love it. As I do the vocals; those higher pitched voices I react poorly to at first tend to become favourites if I do stick around.

The lyrics are even more fragmentary than usual for Low (this is definitely a song that I would like to have some sort of background for) and as getting used to the sound of Drums and Guns did take a couple of listens the way "Belarus" wafts in on a bell-like percussion loop, oddly precise bass notes and sampled Mimi-murmurs (I think) was initially kind of off-putting. I mean, I didn't like "Cue the Strings" at first either, but it (and this album) grew on me steadily, and I firmly believe that this is their most accomplished, most satisfying, best album to date. And I don't do that with all of their work, which is how I can tell my love for Drums and Guns and Trust when they came out isn't just "I like it because it's new."

A lot of Low's best material, after all, does have a certain quality of stasis (to quote glenn mcdonald on Radiohead: "if you get to the end and nothing has happened, that's your fault"), and while there was nothing wrong with Low's sound, hearing them expand their palette so radically while never sounding any less like themselves is kind of thrilling. And more importantly, despite the fact that the 'chorus' is just one word (a semi-obscure Former Soviet Sovialist Republic) repeated four times it's one of the most thrilling things I've heard all year. Alan and Mimi have been singing in not-quite-harmony and not-quite-unison for years now, more than a decade; but rarely has that sounded as interesting as it does here. Alan lowers his voice a bit, getting slightly sandpapery, while Mimi lilts hers upwards on the "rus," quavering a bit as she holds it. If you don't listen to them much all of their singing probably sounds roughly the same, in the way that I have trouble telling metal guitar solos apart sometimes. But for the connoisseur those small, telling touches mark both a control and intent that Alan and Mimi just couldn't wield during the early years and a subtly goosebump-raising performance here.

I'm don't really want to describe it any more, let alone try and convey how it makes me feel. There's a video you can download on Low's site, if you want. "Belarus" isn't even one of the best songs on Drums and Guns in my estimation, but it is the one that is maybe most characteristically Low, the one that does that thing they've thrilled us with for so long in the purest fashion. It gives me chills, and not because they're singing about snow.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Don't Understand

Woof. I managed to not quite get around to this today, as I spent much of the afternoon on the phone fixing my phone and internet connections. Which doesn't mean you don't get an entry; but I dug up my old piece on "Don't Understand," so both to put something here while being able to go to sleep and to embarrass myself into not slipping up again, here's what I thought of this song back in April 2004. Comments from the present time in []s and italics.

------

Low are pretty much the only band I love that make me want to listen to nothing but themselves. I put on other acts I love (Plumtree, say, or the Wrens) and after finishing listening to them I want to listen to another record, sure, but necessarily another of their records. [Sheesh, put that more awkwardly, Mathers.] After finishing The Curtain Hits The Cast or Trust or Long Division or Things We Lost In The Fire or especially Secret Name, I just want to listen to more Low. Luckily, as you can see, I have plenty of options.

There are many reasons why I love Low, [STOP REPEATING THEIR NAME] but their lyrics, as oblique and fragmentary as they are, certainly form a large part. Yes, the songwriting two-thirds of Low are Mormons - what of it? It gives extra meaning to some of their lines if you know about Mormonism or Christianity in general. They honestly seem to be out to convert anyone so much as Mimi Parker and especially Alan Sparhawk are grappling with their own beliefs and the world. [Err... yes, this was posted with a "don't" missing from this line.] Note that almost all of their songs are sung in the first person ("Whore" being the only counterexample I can think of) [There are a number of songs sung as direct addresses, actually - but it's been a while since I've thought about the prevelance of "I" in their catalog, aside from the brief remarks in my entry on "Alone"]; Low's songs are compelling partly because they contain an astounding catalog of human folly, and they don't ever pretend that they are above it just because of their faith.

But then there are songs like "Don't Understand." It, arguably, belongs to the group of songs I've just mentioned; but like most of Low's songs, I dare you to tell me why other than just the fact that you know it does. It starts, and continues, with a weird sampled sound repeated over and over again, without ever gaining any variation; feedback from Alan's guitar coasts over the top. At around two minutes in, cymbals and then the repeated beats [WTF is up with that phrasing?] of bass and guitar join in. They sound like a death knell. After another minute, Sparhawk starts singing. As with much of Low's music, and similarly to the Radar Brothers, there is a sense that something horrible has happened/is happening/will happen. The lines "Drag you to town / treat you just like a son / alone in my house / did they teach you to run?" have a particularly awful resonance if you remember what Son has a central place in Alan's worldview. And then the moments that lock this song inexorably in my memory; Alan sings (with Mimi offering harmony)

I

don't

un

der

stand


And with each syllable the three instruments crash down like an axe. The idiot, gibbering sample in the back continues unabated. the song crashes along, nearly seven minutes and total. And then it, quite literally, recedes. That the next song on the album begins "Soon it will be over / I laughed under my breath over your shoulder" always creeps me out.

Low's music is, for whatever reason, one of the most intensely visual forms of music I can think of. The images the songs call to mind don't tend to be narrative so much as impressionistic, but they are powerful nonetheless. Slow motion and harsh lighting are often involved. You could quite easily score an experimental film to, say, Secret Name (where "Don't Understand" is found). The images for "Don't Understand" don't make much sense, and in any case they change. But for me this song is the sound of every repressed memory struggling back to the surface, of a small child crying in a closet.

------

As clumsily as it's written, that entry still holds basically true for me. I want to write something about the use of terror in Low's songs, and inexorability, and the feeling of being pursued. But honestly, "The Lamb" is where I'll be locating at least some of that. The key with "Don't Understand," I think, is that contrast/relationship between the weird sample loop and the steady crash of the three main instruments on the 'chorus.' It's a great song, and as I mention here perfectly placed on Secret Name. I just wish I could have written more eloquantly on it.

Important Note: I've just discovered I do not, in fact, own the Songs For a Dead Pilot EP, which I thought I did. Could any helpful folk hook me up with those tracks until I can scratch up enough money to buy it myself? If anyone has the never-seen-by-me Low/Spring Heel Jack Bombscare EP that'd be fantastic too.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Shame

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.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Alone

Usually I think "Alone" is a pretty creepy song, but not today. Well, I still think it's kind of creepy, but given certain events in my personal life I empathize with the narrator more than I usually do. But maybe "narrator" is the wrong term - when your lyrics are as minimal as Low's are, you don't really have characters, or plot, or setting. But I still want to use the term narrator to set off the lyrics in Low songs from Alan and/or Mimi. Although I'm sure there are cases (maybe even most of them) where those lyrics can comfortably stand in for what they actually believe or feel, it seems kind of patronizing to assume that because their lyrics are so fragmentary, imagistic and almost always first-person they therefore can't be making the kind of imaginative leap we often credit crediting more conventional songwriters with.

The religion thing is, I think, a big part of why every Low song is often considered to be autobiographical (although I'll wait until something more directly relevant to that argument, "Weight of Water" for example, before tackling it fully), but so many of their songs written around religious or quasi-religious songs seem to subtly contradict each other. I've never tried to sit down and map out what I think the different positions are, or which one is 'theirs' (if such a position exists), and I don't think this complexity is a weakness. The overriding impression I get is that their faith is anything but a simple, reassuring thing for Alan and Mimi, it's something they grapple with.

Wait, I was going somewhere with "Alone" before I tangented off into nowhere... ah, yes. Between the above tangent and talking with some people on MSN and the like, I've actually been sitting here with "Alone" on repeat for quite some time. And something weird has happened. I mentioned above that I (used to, I guess) think it's creepy; that's mostly for the way for the majority of the song you just have Alan repeating

If I could get you alone...
If I could get you alone, I'd...
If I could get you alone
Would you take me back home?


Mimi shadows him on the "I'd" (a lovely moment) and the last line, but mostly it's just Alan and he does in fact sound more alone, more destitute, than he usually does. There's no whine in his voice, but there is a yearning; I used to take "Alone" as a kind of creepy stalker song, and I think you could still view it that way, but as I hear it over and over again my ears focus more on how lovely it all sounds, and it sounds more like he's singing to someone he already has a history with rather than a stranger or new person. Which somehow makes it much less creeper, and much sadder. and then there's the single verse:

You remind me that I'm weak
You remind me I can fly
You remind me I can't read
You remind me so I try


What the hell does that mean? This is one of those times I have to throw up my hands and admit I have no idea. I'm not Biblically literate enough to tell if there's some sort of reference there, but I find the collision of "I can fly" and "I can't read" intriguing enough without any background. If there's religious content here I have no idea what it would be.

I did, however, cave and use Archive.org to dig up the old song backgrounds page, which only goes to the Low/Dirty Three EP just after Things We Lost in the Fire. The blurb for "Alone" confirms my suspicions: "fragile-boy song (see "drag"). low self esteem love song - danger!" (and maybe I'll do "Drag" tomorrow, just to continue the theme) I'm inclined at this point to read the verse as more figurative than anything, and when I think of it that way it makes perfect emotional if not literal sense to me. I always picture Alan humming this to himself at a party, not talking to the person he wants to be talking to, never quite making his way across the room to do so.

Of course, Sparhawk and Parker were married when they started Low, and they still are, so the question of whether or not "Alone" is autobiographical in either a historical or direct sense are kind of moot. But it's not exactly a dating/falling in love type song - "Will you take me back home?" evokes not a pick-up but the kind of "can we go home now, dear?" moment most of us have probably had at parties with loved ones. So I take back what I said at the beginning of this post; I've moved from thinking of "Alone" as one of Low's creepily effective stories of people with connection problems to a very domestic, almost comforting song. But not quite, because the way Alan bites off the phrase "You remind me, so I try" before going back to the sweet coo of the chorus is almost strangled in his own throat. It's one of the those sweet and sour juxtapositions that makes Low so interesting to me.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Starfire

I chose "Starfire" today for reasons other than historical progression, but after I started writing this entry I remembered with something approaching ruefulness that it also happens to continue the story of how I fell in love with Low, so I might as well start there. After getting and loving Things We Lost in the Fire it took me a while to investigate the rest of their discography. That happens to me a lot, and for two completely separate reasons. The more interesting one, which unfortunately does not hold with Low, is that there are albums I like, and even love, where I don't ever want to hear anything more by that band, where I feel like I have enough of that artist (A Hundred Miles Off by the Walkmen is a good example; I love that record more than I should, and I like a few other tracks I've heard, but I have an almost shocking aversion to getting any of their other albums). But often, it's just a case of time/money/laziness problems on my part.

The one thing I did do fairly quickly was download three free, legal Low MP3s from their label (I think, it was years ago). I got "Shame" from Long Division and "Two-Step" and "Starfire" from Secret Name, which I'd read about on NME.com (sadly, they started cleansing their online archives the same time they started reducing most of their album reviews to 200 words or so) and allmusic for a while at that point. And to be honest, if it'd just been "Starfire" I might have stopped right there.

I don't really think it's a bad song, there's a million things I'd take "Starfire" over, but that's now. I don't skip it when I'm listening to Secret Name, but it's not on my computer either (I don't keep whole albums I own on my computer, just 3-5 highlights from said albums). I don't think I've ever been moved to put it on a mix, which is a rarity for Low songs - hell, I've put "Home" on a mix. And at first, I actually experienced palpable dislike for "Starfire."

It's Alan's voice, especially at first; every line in the verse, which is seperated out line-by-line by Mimi's responding, wordless vocal and a stringed drone (violin? viola?) starts in a higher-pitched part of his range and then clumsily ascends to where he just sounds shrill and forced. In latter part of the track, once he and Mimi are exchanging "la la la"s the song actually becomes compelling to me, but that first section just turned me off. It's not as extreme as I may be making it sound; further experience with their discography suggests that "Starfire" is well within the limits of what Alan usually does. But he certainly doesn't do it on Things We Lost in the Fire; that is a record of uniformly smooth vocals, and I wasn't used to what he does on "Starfire" at all (you can compare it to the way I didn't like John Darnielle's voice the first time I heard The Sunset Tree, and now I love every song he sings). Of course, I'd soon find out that Low's music wasn't all like what that first album had prepared me for (and maybe on Monday I should do "Coattails" or something to talk about how surprised I was at how loud some of their songs are)

I don't dislike the structure, the Mimi-and-string response to each line is actually quite compelling, but the constant guitar burble is maybe actually, and it feels weird to say this about a Low song, a bit too busy. It works well on Secret Name coming right after the stark, terrified opener "I Remember" (one of my favourite Lows songs) to warm up the album a bit - I'm actually surprised that the above AMG review says "the music is so warm it's a literal caress from the speakers." Even "Starfire" feels a bit standoffish, to say nothing of "Don't Understand," "Lion/Lamb," "Immune," etc.

And as for what "Starfire" is about, this brings me to another of my frustrations with the band. I mostly love the new website (check out the video for "Breaker" while you're there!), but I kind of hate the information that's gone missing from the old site. Half of the albums have lyrics "coming soon" still, and the old page where Alan gave you brief tidbits of information on each song is gone completely. I miss that page. I loved that page! If it's a case of not having enough time to do it and someone from Low is somehow reading this page, I absolutely volunteer to do whatever transcribing, etc. can be done remotely, free of charge. As for "Starfire," my memories are a bit hazy, but Starfire is a friend of theirs (he's thanked in, I believe, a couple of the albums) who used(?) to work as a paramedic and who planned with Alan at one point to open a pirate radio station. Hence:

We'll call it Starfire, who will know?
I want a station of my own
I have the tools
I have my rules

I'll load the back end, you can drive
Broken bodies all the time
Let's take a ride
Starfire tonight
Ten thousand miles away
Away


(again, except for some "la la la"s, that's the whole song)

Now, I don't want the detailed stories of the genesis of each song, but that's not what the song notes were. And sometimes knowing just a bit of the background makes (for me at least) the song so much more resonant, even magical. Low tell so much of the story by leaving so much out, and that's whatI've come to like a little about "Starfire," even if there are problably ten songs I'd swap for it on Secret Name.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Blue-Eyed Devil

Sluggin' down fruit juice
Extra tall, extra wide


It's been a long, and in some ways tough, day. I got in earlier, but got distracted by phone calls and the like; I still have the dishes I promised my brother I'd get done before tomorrow so he'd have something to put his sandwich in, and I'm not going to have as much time to read as I'd hoped. I'm already tired, and although I've been drinking plenty of fluids my throat is killing me. I've gone back and forth about what song to use today as my mood has fluctuated, but late at night, wishing I was already sleeping and knowing it's not coming for a while, I also knew I had to pick what is for me one of Low's most comforting songs.

Which is more than a little perverse; It's a cover of a snarky, spiky Soul Coughing song (done because Soul Coughing 'threatened' to cover a Low song and were beaten to the punch) which is about/directed at a guy "born to be a god among salesmen," and that eventually resolves in a bout of scratchy funk. Not exactly Low's mileau. But they do a couple of interesting things with "Blue-Eyed Devil."

The first and most predictable is of course to slow it down and smooth it out. The section of the song they cover is at most three and a half minutes; their version is five. Instead of "Dig digging it, come on" Alan mutters "Come on come on come on" at the end of the second verse (the Beat language works for Soul Coughing but wouldn't for him), and instead of "King of Siam / Get the trouble frying / King of Siam / I'm not the devil" the music shifts in order for a more muted, querulous Alan to repeat "Leave me alone, I'm not the devil, leave me alone" which is both kind of pathetic in affect and serves to make this devil more sympathetic. And instead of that funky coda, Alan and Mimi decide instead to just keep singing out "Blue-eyed devil" in unison as if it's the most satisfying phrase in the world.

And the trick to "Blue-Eyed Devil" is that for the duration it is. The drums are Low-standard glacial, and Alan's guitar more tentative than normal; but Zak's bass flows through the song like a river, and the organ(?) drone over the other instruments gives the whole thing an air of calm. It took me a few listens to notice what the song is about, insofar as it's about anything at all, because for long stretches all that's important is the two of them intoning "Blue-eyed devil, blue-eyed devil." There's a weird kind of compassion in their voices, as if Low still don't exactly approve of the man but also don't dislike him, and kind of pity the way he has to live. That makes the song oddly reassuring; if they can show this much sympathy to a devil, surely they'll sing an even prettier song for the rest of us. As it is, that brief bass/guitar refrain after every rendition of the title is both one of my musical touchstones for gentle comfort and makes me want to put my head down and rest, so I'd better go get to work.

Moving door to door to door
Stoned motel room
Nice cool on the bathroom floor

A quick note

I'm a procrastinator by nature, but that doesn't change the fact that I was getting around to today's entry very soon; but then a friend I was seeing tonight called and pushed things forward as she's got a cold and teaches school early in the morning, so I must get to that. She goes to bed early enough that I'll be back and updating before the end of the day, though, and I had a few things to note anyways.

You'll see that at the side we have a number of new band blogs, courtesy of Matthew's latest post at Fluxblog; thanks very much to him for including TMW,TMW in his listing, and 'hi' to anyone coming here from there - this is a horrible day not to have something more substantial greeting you, but hopefully the last three will whet your appetite.

Even nicer is Tom Ewing's survey of the phenomenon at the mighty, grandaddy-of-us-all (and I mean that in the best possible sense) Freaky Trigger; I'm flattered that he finds my "chatty honesty" endearing, and even more so that he likes it enough he wishes I was doing another band. The concerns he raises, both about TMW,TMW and these blogs in general, are very valid; in my case, all I can say is that the length of this thing was definitely a consideration from the start, and while I didn't want to make myself miserable by rationing the good stuff for later, I also have a lot more to say. And in at least one case, the things he mentions me "covering" are far from over; believe me, the topic of religion will be raised again. And there are songs/topics I'm saving for when I need to get my second wind. So 'hi' to the people that wander here from there too; I hope you'll stick around.

Today it occurred to me that if I had thought about it and tried to go for a band I felt less unambiguously positive about, one with fewer songs (I think), I could have done worse than to do Belle & Sebastian, especially since their last album sucked. I'm not switching horses, and I'm plenty happy with my choices, but someone should get on that, eh? And if they do, I'll swap them a guest post here on the song of their choosing for the chance to do "This Is Just a Modern Rock Song."

I thought I had written a Seconds at Stylus on "Don't Understand," which I was going to link to tide the hungry over until tonight, but I don't see it. I guess it was from my old, defunct blog (the hosting service went kaput). I'll have to dig it out soon and see if it was any good.

Ta for now.

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.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Fear

After starting with Things We Lost in the Fire I begun working my way forwards and backwards through Low's discography; except for Drums and Guns, it's their debut I got to last. And while I enjoy I Could Live in Hope, it's also their weakest; they're clearly still working out what exactly they want to do (something that wouldn't really become clear until Long Division, in retrospect). Listen to "Fear," the brief second track: Mimi is hitting the cymbals at a rate which she wouldn't approach again until maybe Things We Lost in the Fire, John Nicols' bass seems a bit more exploratory than Zak Sally's usually is, and and even Alan Sparhawk's strumming is almost lively (although still quite restrained compared to standard rock music).

What I mean, then, is that I Could Live in Hope often does not live up to the idea of Low - but then, none of their records really does, the way no movie monster hidden in darkness for the first 80% of the film really looks as scary when you see the suit/puppet/CGI. I guess you could cherrypick a series of songs that could present that kind of ideal image of the band, totally monastic and pure, but you'd also be drastically reducing the breadth and reality of Low's music. Here, for example, Kramer puts enough echo over the proceedings, especially Alan's guitar, that "Fear" actually sounds kind of lush (especially by Low's standards, and especially if you've been moving backward through their albums and are expecting something chillier and sparser than Long Division). About all that's really strongly Low-ish about the song is the way Alan and Mimi's voices braid together, and the brevity and suggestiveness of the lyrics:

If you see my daughter
Don't tell her I'm scared
Forty days without water
Feel my hands on her hair

I fear

I fear


That's complete, including repetitions. Admittedly "Fear" is only 2:16, but it still feels like a full-fledged song not a fragment. Placed between the much longer "Words" and "Cut" it's little more than a bridge, but one that sets the tone for the kind of unplaceable dread Low regularly colour their songs with (although this one is more explicit about it than most). And for religious imagery watchers, the most we get here is of course that teasingly significant(?) reference to "Forty days," but did Noah have a daughter? Or go without water?

Monday, May 14, 2007

Sunflower

"Sunflower" was the first song I ever consciously heard by Low, and also my first favourite Low song (although it's not as coincident as that makes it sound). I got into the band via glenn mcdonald (scroll down), and what with music being hard-ish for me to get at the time, this being the days before Stylus, Soulseek or even the student newspaper, I trucked on down to the now-moved Music in Orbit and bought the only Low album they had on offer. Hey, glenn said "There's nobody into whose care I'd rather silence be entrusted," what's $25 that you really can't afford, sound unheard?

So I troop out of the store with this album with a moon map and a mysterious rusted metal label on the front, and strangely photocopied-looking art; to this day the maroon ink they use on the back for the tracklisting makes for one of my favourite back covers of an album ever (let no one say I am not weird and obsessive, although I can honestly say I've never made a list of those). I had that same sick thrill I always had when spending too much money on music that I might wind up, honestly, hating. I'd been burned enough times it was still exciting, but not so much I was gunshy.

I was raised without religion, and I'm a bit embarrassed to admit that even at 20 I got this odd kind of giddy shock from hearing lines like "Underneath the star of David / A hundred years behind behind my eyes," especially from a band I felt a bit of trepidation about because they were, you know, religious (I'm much less naive now, thanks). I got the reference, but I had no idea what it means, and I still don't. They talk of "with your half of the ransom," of "giant Xs on your eyes," and of buying sweet, sweet, sweet sunflowers "for the night." It was funnier and more cryptic and much less evangelical than I'd been half expecting. To steal another line from glenn:

"The idea that Alan and Mimi are Mormons turns out to have been an extremely clever bit of meta-information to overlay on their songs, quite independent of what extent to which it's accurate, but even without it I think these songs would maintain the bulk of their ambiguities."

One of the things I most love about Low is that I honestly have no idea what their beliefs are, even after watching the DVD in A Lifetime of Temporary Relief. I get some sense of what they value from religion, I think, from albums like Secret Name and the almost painfully austere Trust, and recently I've been feeling Alan has lost some of his faith (Drums and Guns strikes me as being very, very angry with God, although I could easily be wrong), but we're left with the vague outlines of something that is, after all, very private and none of our business. I have a great love of the incomplete, the shadowy, the mysterious when done a certain way, and Low certainly apply.

But I also love, for a band I feared I'd find boring and colourless and slow from reviews I'd read, the way Mimi very slowly beats the hell out of her drum kit, and the perfectly placed strings and the unison of the voices (just you wait until I get to "(That's How You Sing) Amazing Grace"!), and how alive the whole thing was. I even love the little hiccup (guitar? voice?) that launches the song again after the mid-track pause. Admittedly Things We Lost in the Fire (what a painfully apt album title for 2001, in retrospect) is still in some ways their most welcoming album and the one I'd recommend starting with, but even here there are stunning moments of quiet and stillness. "Sunflower" isn't one, but already I was getting the sense that this was a band who were content to make their own sense; you were welcome to participate, but they weren't going to invite you in too far. Back then I was focused on music that was loud and angry and fast; now I listen to far more music that is quiet and graceful and emotionally affecting (not that the loud, fast stuff never was). "Sunflower" was the beginning of that progression.

On the Edge Of

I'm a pretty big Neil Young fan (especially the frustratingly unreleased on CD Time Fades Away), and more importantly my dad is a huge one. No-one in our family or friends is named Neil, but if you say that word in my dad's house we know who you're talking about. And yet for a long time after I started listening to Low I didn't get the Neil Young comparisons I'd read.

That ended roughly three seconds into "On the Edge Of," from 2005's underlauded The Great Destroyer. "On the Edge Of" is mostly interesting to the devotee for the way it manages to marry the crunching rock switchback of the opening section to the faintly liturgical titular refrain, Alan and Mimi blending their voices to the customary, wonderful effect. But that opening guitar work! The drums are unmistakably Mimi, but for ten seconds or so I thought I'd stumbled onto a slow-motion section from Neil's fantastic Weld live album. The way the guitar will stop lashing and start grumbling just as Mimi powers her way through a particularly powerful triple-thwack of her brushed(?) snare is an especially wonderful moment. A lot of music fans only know Low by reputation, or a few tracks like "Over the Ocean" or their verson of "The Little Drummer Boy," and while "On the Edge Of" contains elements of that sound it also expands the band's reach significantly from there.

But it's not where I'd start if I was new to the band. I didn't even notice it that much the first few times I heard the album, there being more dramatic offerings on hand. I'm kind of figuring most people checking out this blog are Low fans, but I'm also hoping some aren't, so I feel compelled to point out that although Low have had a reputation as makers of painfully hushed, crystalline and pretty music for years they are actually far darker and weirder, and their various dalliances with noise have always been highlights in their catalog. Well, The Great Destroyer is where they decamped to Sub Pop, grabbed the rather maximalist Dave Fridmann (part of Mercury Rev when they made their great albums, never forget) and made a rock album. It's a fantastic success by my estimation, not least because they seem to have gained a knack for making taut, complete shorter songs (I'm a big fan of brevity), something that's paid off in spades on this year's Drums and Guns.

Of course, in addition to breaking open the band's music in more dramatic fashion than before, The Great Destroyer also marks what looks an awful lot like a crisis of faith for Alan Sparhawk, at least from the outside. It certainly coincided with some mental anguish and difficulty, and the lyrics here are typical of the period; cryptic and haunted, with a healthy dose of resentment for the one whose "long filthy fingers keep jamming words down my throat" - it could be anyone from God to Alan himself.

Basic information

There's always Wikipedia, or even their site, but for the lazy:

Low are a three piece band from Duluth, Minnesota. They consist of Alan Sparhawk (vocals, guitar) and Mimi Parker (vocals, drums) and a bassist; for most of their career that was Zak Sally, but now it's Matt Livingston and originally it was John Nicols. Sparhawk and Parker are married, with two young kids; Sparhawk was raised Mormon and Parker is a convert. They are not a Christian Rock band. They are not a slowcore band, if indeed they ever were.

Preamble/Qualifications

So as soon as Matthew Perpetua started writing about R.E.M. I thought I'd like to do one of these, and Mike on the Mountain Goats and Erik on Robyn Hitchcock only strengthened my resolve (to say nothing of people whom I hadn't previously read trying their hands at Talking Heads and Pearl Jam). I thought about waiting until I was done my thesis, but the fact that I need something to do to give my days a little structure and the fear that someone would grab my topic (Minnesota's finest, Low) first has led me to go ahead and throw my hat into the ring.

The level of quality in these song-by-song blogs I've encountered has been scarily high, and hopefully I won't let the side down. I've only been a fan of Low for a relatively short time now, although I guess six years ago puts us at nearly half the band's life span. Crazy. What I own, and thus what I plan to go through until I'm done, is all eight of the band's studio albums, the Transmission EP, the Christmas mini-album and all of the various tracks collected on the box set A Lifetime of Temporary Relief (a title that seems more apt with each album since). If I find out there's an EP that's not adequately covered by that, I'll try and track it down, and similarly if I get a crack at either live album or the remix disc I'll give them a shot too.

I'm going to try and do one of these a weekday, and unless the spirit moves me the track selection will probably be quasi-random; unlike Mike I'm not restricting myself to the length of the song to write, as that would screw up my habit of not writing whe actually listening to the song. Given how some articles have, in the past, resulted in me temporarily burning myself out on a song or album, let's hope I still feel strongly about Low when I end (or give up), as they're one of my favourites.

Oh, and while I do plan to be forthright about things I don't like, you may want to keep in mind that I'm a huge fan of the band and I don't think they've ever made a bad album. Comments are welcome, and unless we get into actual abuse/stupidity I'll always let them stand, but don't bother knocking me for not being objective. I'm admitting my profound bias here and now.