and I can hear 'em


Thursday, June 28, 2007

Blargh

I had this all set up to be updated normally this week, and then I got a whole pile of hours at my new job, which combined with getting ready for my road trip to BC means I've got no free time! I hate to do this, folks, mainly because I know this is how you lose readers, but I'm going to have to put TMW,TMW on hiatus now and come back to it on the 11th or 12th of July. Won't you put our RSS feed into your favourite reader and check back in when we come back to life?

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Sea

one of those songs that just falls in your lap. sounds like an old song - maybe because of the folk harmonies.

That's Alan. And "Sea" certainly did fall into my lap - I didn't have time to do an entry before going to work, and seeking something I could do relatively quickly (I have belatedly become addicted to those Star Wars Lego video games, despite a basic dislike of Star Wars; I skip the cut scenes and get to secret-finding). I was looking for "Streetlight" and thought it was on I Could Live in Hope. It's not but the sub-two minute "Sea" is. And as someone is sleeping the room I type this in, I'm listening to "Sea" on a loop at an extremely low volume. I could get headphones, but I kind of like the effect. Alan and Mimi are just murmuring "The sea is a long, long way / from me" over and over, and it's way too late and I need to get to sleep. "Sea" doesn't grab me very often, and really on record it's basically a pause between "Lullaby" and "Down" (9:46 and 7:24, respectively). It's not a bad song, just one of the less consequential tracks Low have ever put on an album. I'm actually kind of glad I've just spent 40 minutes listening to it; this project, if nothing else, is giving me a whole new appreciaton for this sort of thing.



Important note: We have another new oeuvreblog, the excellently named Music From a Bachelor's Den, where Michael is going over Pulp. This Is Hardcore is one of those records from 1997 I secretly love far more than the more high profile records released that year, so I look forward to seeing how he does; his link is in the sidebar.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Days Of...

I sometimes have problems with writer's block. I didn't used to, and I'm not wholly sure what the issue is now, although certainly my adult life has gotten more stressful as it's gone on (with some breaks). I don't get it, and I know I need to at some point. And it's what results in me sitting here at 3:00 am on a Monday morning, feeling like shit because yet again I have only finished the bare minimum of my writing for the weekend and once again I have started mentally shuffling my plans for the rest of the week to compensate. I hate this feeling, and so partly to give myself more time later today after sleeping and mostly to assuage some of that guilt I'm getting today's entry in now.

"Days Of..." was picked because I wanted a Low song that conjured for me a sensation of absolute stasis that fits the way I tend to feel when I've spent all day not getting done what I had plenty of time to do. I've noted this song's effectiveness in that category before, but it feels more pessimistic than ever this morning. As I note in my mix for Stylus last year, it's just occasional booms of drum and extremely hesitant bass notes (there might be a guitar note or two from Alan in there too, it's hard to focus on the music to be honest). The song is perfectly paced for its six minutes; there is roughly 75 seconds of instrumental at the beginning and the end, and the middle three and a half minutes contains one of Mimi's most precise vocal readings. She's singing, not speaking (there's no doubt about that), but the relative vocal or sonic fireworks of something like "Laser Beam" or "Coattails" are nowhere to be found. She is exceptionally calm and patient, even if the lyrics she sings suggest both disappointment and how we deal with that disappointment:

It was one of those days
Of salvation and loss

Just one of those days
When you wait for the worst
First they hold you for a ransom
Then they buy you for a song

Just one of those days
When you laugh at what you've done
How they ripped you from the pages
Oh you waited for the best

It was one of those days
Of salvation and loss


The opening and closing couplet is suggestive but not terribly informative; is any day, for Low, not one of salvation and loss? Or for us? Should it be? But the middle is interesting, as ever since actually looking at the lyrics I believe I have for the first time in this blog an actual theory about a Low song I feel good about. It's pretty obvious, what with "ripped you from the pages" and holding the "you" in question for ransom, but I can't help feeling like Mimi's talking about Jesus Christ here. If Low have often written songs that express some level of bemused sympathy for unbelievers, they certainly have more common ground there than with people who claim to follow roughly the same belief system as Alan and Mimi but make a mockery of it. And neither of Low's songwriters strike me as Bible "literalists" (put in scare quotation marks because people who call themselves literalists in this field almost never are), which suggests that they, like most people since the monks of the Middle Ages, possess enough brains to interpret Scripture in a fairly coherent way. Which means the distortions it tends to get put through even when Secret Name came out are more than just infuriating as they are to me; that kind of thing must hurt.

But that, ultimately, is not really why I picked "Days Of..." and it's perfectly chosen ellipsis. Mimi fills in what it's a day of in the lyric but really it's evocative, in title and performance, of any of those days that just slides right by, where nothing happens in such great quantities that you barely get to the something you had planned. Days when you feel like a person in a book, waiting for someone to read you, and wondering why you can't just do that yourself. Like every bout of writer's block, I'm telling myself tomorrow will be better. If it isn't, I know what I'll be listening to.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Half Light


WEIRD FEELING
CAN'T EXPLAIN



I have never seen The Mothman Prophecies, and it's only years after I'd first heard Low's "Half Light" (which plays over the credits, apparently) that I've become intrigued about it. I always knew "Half Light" was from that movie when I downloaded it; the version you can hear in the video above is the single mix, and the MP3 I have is the near seven-minute end credits mix. It's even creepier, with someone (Alan? IMDB tells me they're by "Indrid Cold," but you'll forgive my skepticism) whispering away in the background in a way that makes headphone listening a little uncomfortable. The track, as might be guessed from the unusual-for-the-time attack and drum loop of "Half Light," is a collaboration with tomandandy who did the score which takes up the second disc(!) of the OST, which I am seriously considering putting a reservation in for at work. "Half Light" is a great track, and I'm at least mildly intrigued by the rest of the selections.

Tomandandy also, at least according to Wikipedia, "redefined the way in which music for media was created by appropriating aesthetics of the avant-garde and bringing them into pop culture" which is an idea I'm deeply, deeply ambivalent about. But on "Half Light" I'm happy enough with them - they mainly give Mimi a beat she can ride, as far as I can make out, and she does a fantastic job. Alan's guitar is similarly oddly satisfying, as coming over half a year before even Trust "Half Light" is further preliminary evidence that Low can do things assumed to be outside their zone of comfort/competance and in fact do them quite well. The loping beat and some of Mimi's backing vocals (at her spectral best) make me think of trip hop, but the rest of the track is too active and crunchy for that to really hold. It wouldn't really fit on any of Low's albums, and I'm not wholly surprised that the A Lifetime of Temporary Relief didn't grab either "Half Light," as it doesn't collect Low's other collaborations either (most notably the In the Fishtank disc with the Dirty Three).

"Half Light" isn't quite as creepy as some of Low's own songs, mainly because it seems to be trying to weird us out (although, yeah, "Indrid Cold" does get to me sometimes), but it's incredibly successful at the time I downloaded it (back when the movie came out, after hearing a snippet in an ad or something similar) as an expansion of the band's sound. I never thought this was the direction Low was moving in, and I'm not upset I was right about that, but anyone who thinks they only work one way or can only successfully make one type (or speed) of song should check out "Half Light."

Also, that video above? Was my first inkling, post Things We Lost in the Fire and Secret Name, of just how creepy Alan can be. In the context of the band's other albums and further examination of tracks like "Don't Understand" his demeanor in the "Half Light" clip would seem more in line with his normal persona, but at the time I mostly thought of him (and Low in general) as a fairly positive/reassuring/uplifting act, possibly in a kind of holdover from thinking of them as a Christian band. While Alan and Mimi's songs often manage to make me feel uplifted or similarly good, it's not because they're treacly or even very positive; "bleak" is probably an underused word to describe Low's music, even if that's at least partly because it runs the risk of being heard as a pejorative instead of the praise that it's intended to be. As for the video, I imagine the two of them had a lot of fun making it, not that they ever break what you might call character during the finished product. I like it, although it's not exactly wildly innovative.

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.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Solo Guitar

Prefatory note: I am exceedingly pleased to see that my good (internet) friend Iain F. has tossed his hat in the oeuvreblogging ring with his dissection of the Bluetones' discography Paraguay and Laos. Not being British I've never heard them, but Iain's off to a great start and I think I'm going to enjoy his tour of those 111 songs very much indeed.

So, I missed yesterday due to getting a job, and although I've been planning this all day it feels like I'm going to miss it again, but I finally downloaded something the estimable Robert P. Inverarity smuggled to me under cover of night, and I'm listening to it and I'm sufficiently blown away I feel I should have today's entry cover not just a track, not just two tracks to cover yesterday, but a whole album. Alan Sparhawk's first solo album, in fact, the rather blandly named Solo Guitar.

It is far further 'out' than anything Low's done to date, and unsurprisingly appears on Silber rather than Sub Pop. My sole direct experience with Silber to date was label head Brian John Mitchell's (rather fantastic) album as Small Life Form, but that prepared me for something very un-songlike, at least as 'song' is traditionally conceived, and Solo Guitar is very much up that alley. Very far up that alley. Despite what the title might evoke, Sparhawk's album doesn't sound any sparser than, say, Still's turntable-only Remains, although it gives you much more of a story than that release.

Mostly because of the song titles. There are basically three stories on Solo Guitar, or two stories and one weird-ass cover/homage:

1 How the Weather Comes Over the Central Hillside (1:46)
2 Sagrado Corazón de Jesú (First Attempt) (1:12)
3 Sagrado Corazón de Jesú (Second Attempt) (13:26)
4 How a Freighter Comes into the Harbor (17:53)
5 How the Weather Hits the Freighter... (1:52)
6 ...in the Harbor (0:39)
7 How the Engine Room Sounds (2:49)
8 Eruption by Eddie Van Halen (2:36)
9 How It Ends (0:55)

The titles are at times almost terrifyingly literal, as in the end of "How a Freighter Comes into the Harbor" and "How the Engine Room Sounds." The record was recorded live, with just a guitar, some effects pedals and Alan, and everything on it was created in real time. I include the track times both because I tend to be curious and because here I think they tell a significant part of the story. Of course, when listened to instead of read I think all three elements of the tracklisting are actually facets of the same story (shades of Gene Wolfe's The Three Heads of Cerberus, one of my favourite books). It's highly suggestive that Alan would call a track "Sagrado Corazón de Jesú," of course, and I'm not exactly sure what that has to do with a nautical excursion (part of me wants to say 'disaster,' but "How It Ends" is enigmatic on that score) and Van Halen's finest finger-shredding guitar. But when you hear it, it makes sense.

I mean, I honestly have trouble writing about this stuff. I'm left with description: Sparhawk tends to get the two long tracks going by setting up layers of drones with his guitar and then occasionally bursting out all over them with a kind of violence that has never really been seen on a Low track. Even though he doesn't sing, it's unmistakably him; parts remind me of "Do You Know How to Waltz," yeah, but also "Laugh" and even a track like "(That's How You Sing) Amazing Grace." He's got a very distinctive guitar style, and even as he stretches it all over the place there's still the odd reminder. The shorter tracks feel like a humble but necessary frame for the excursions of the two main pieces, setting them off and giving context. The Van Halen cover doesn't sound much like the original to my ears, but I've only heard that once or twice and don't play guitar myself. The first and second attempts at "Sagrado Corazón de Jesú" actually sound that way; the first peters out after a brief stab at it, but the second starts the same way before building in power to an almost monstrous degree. And as good as the shorter pieces are, those two lengthy ones are just about the most devastating things Sparhawk has ever put his hand to.

No disrespect to his work with Low, obviously. And your mileage will very much vary, especially given how much you like drones, abstract music and/or atonality (at times). But Solo Guitar feels a bit like the external expression of what might have been going through Alan's head around the time of the post-Great Destroyer breakdown, sublimated through a tale of a freighter and some sort of religious iconography. Before listening I was a bit skeptical of his decision to stack the two lengthy songs together, but it makes perfect sense now - they are, in a real sense, the album and separating them would just be weird. The end of "How a Freighter Comes into the Harbor" is shrieking that sounds almost like a subway train stopping, which makes me think it's not coming in to the harbor peacefully. But it's also beautiful in a kind of excoriating way. Maybe that's the best way to put Solo Guitar, really. Alan often comes across as not really taking it easy on himself or anyone else, and while this may have been very fun to record, it's more fulfilling than fun to listen to. I'm ordering it from Silber as soon as I have some money from the job, in any case. I'm not the type to order everything by any band just because of who makes it (...with the possible exception of Readymade), so this isn't a case of "oh, Alan Sparhawk did it, I should get it." Solo Guitar is as powerful and fierce as Low has ever been, and I kind of hope Alan tries something like it again at some point; he has such pinpoint control over the emotional affect of his instrument that as the Stylus review points out, the record is reminiscent of a good short story.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Transmission

I don't own the Transmission EP anymore, and given my deep and abiding love for Low that should probably tell you something. Or maybe not; I mean, I own way too many CDs and I'm basically always looking for excuses to get rid of more. But remembering that "Transmission" itself is not on the A Lifetime of Temporary Relief box set (nor is "Sleep at the Bottom," their collaboration with Piano Magic and Temporary Waves, or the rest of the Transmission EP, or Songs For a Dead Pilot) makes me wonder what's going to happen when I'm done with the main bits of Low's catalog and move on to the detritus (I'd like to do as much of the latter throughout the process as possible, but realistically some of it will get shoved to the back).

But I'm avoiding talking about "Transmission," because it's a little depressing. I love Joy Division, they love Joy Division, it's not a bad version at all... but it just doesn't do much for me. Or rather, given that a Low cover of one of the best of Joy Division's singles makes me in the abstract very very happy, it doesn't do as much as I feel it should for me.

They give it a good try - included a garbled 'transmission' type sound near the beginning (I am informed it's an Eno loop) is either a neat touch or overly precious depending on how I'm feeling, but listening to that opening "Ra-di-o, light transmission..." you can tell Alan is really going for that sepulchral Ian Curtis feel. They go slow enough that they only fit in one verse and lots of chorus, and honestly that's part of the problem.

I've written plenty on Joy Division elsewhere (that's not even the longest bit, and my semi-scholarly article on them isn't up yet), and one of the threads I keep seizing on is the feeling of fierce compulsion to their music and specfically Curtis' vocals. Even on slower tracks Curtis sounds palpably gripped by forces beyond his control (and I don't mean epilepsy), and while Alan and Mimi make an interesting attempt to summon up that kind of feeling ultimately they're just not that successful. On "Transmission" Curtis was at his white-hot most intense, and especially live the song is galvanic. Alan and Mimi fashion their voices into something flat and hard for the "dance, dance, dance to the radio" refrain and it's an interesting choice, but whereas the original was the sound of the obscene twitching of the will, that thing which makes zombies of us all, Low sound kind of zombified. As I said, that makes for an interesting cover and a good song, but I can't help but be disappointed. And I doubt there's any way they could have avoided my disappointment - I think in principle it may be impossible to reconcile what I about the two bands in one song. Both among my favourite music, and both are just too different.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Like a Forest

One of the already-recurring themes of my semi-public engagement with Low's discography has been the relative obscurity of their lyrics. I mean, a lot of bands I really love do this, although never in quite the same way. But if you want to talk about the cryptic nature of much of Low's lyrics, try parsing this out:

Black, like a forest
And still, like a lion
My knees are bended
We used to speak
A different language

I wasted my breath
On words soon forgotten
Left unattended
They're moving their feet
But nobody's dancing

Ah, take your time
Ah, take your time

How can I blame you
For all of the screaming
That I've had to turn to
Just in time
To go off in my hands


Okay, so as a non-religious person (who, I am sad to admit, hasn't gotten around to reading the Bible yet and so only picks up some of the wealth of allusions modern Western culture makes to it) I sometimes feel half-blind when trying to figure out what Alan is on about, although of course I don't even know there are religious references I'm missing. The bit about bended knees brings prayer to mind, but that's all. That last verse/chorus (there's no real chorus here, certainly not the "take your time" refrain, but the whole song is catchy/hooky enough that there aren't really any verses either, in the way I tend to think of them) is wonderfully evocative and, like a lot of Low, pretty forboding - there's screaming and something "[going] off in my hands" but I still don't know what's happening.

"Like a Forest" feels a bit like a lament - "We used to speak a different language" but now there's "nobody dancing," which seems like a shame. The whole structure of the question "How can I blame you" suggests that our narrator does in fact blame the person he's singing too, but except for that last section there's not so much a story going on here as a rumination. The music only reinforces all this; it starts with the doubled strings and acoustic guitar that, once Alan and Mimi reach the second line, will along with Mark D'Gli Antoni's piano plinks and Mimi's surprisingly acoustic sounding drums (I can't explain that descriptor) sweep the song along. As we progress through the verses the music gains slightly in urgency, and somewhere in the last bit I get the impression that it's leading the vocals rather than vice versa, and as they draw out that last "hand" the violin becomes quite stirring.

One thing that had never really hit me until this very day as I looked through the liner notes for Things We Lost in the Fire was how much collaboration takes place here. Earlier albums had the odd keyboard part from a producer or what have you, but there are eight people (not counting a photographer and Hollis, about which more on "In Metal") listed in the liners, providing everything from extra guitar to trumpet to loops to backing vocals. I think this may be why the album is so loved, especially from people who found early Low too chilly - or rather, too insular. There's more of a communal feel here. And although "Like a Forest" could have easily turned up on an earlier record it wouldn't have been so warmly burnished, and as a result wouldn't have been one of the most welcoming tracks on a Low album. It's short, it's sweet, but it doesn't miss out on the essential darkness or at least strangeness of the Low experience (so to speak).

And a postscript on the 'meaning' of "Like a Forest," albeit one that begins to confuse me more. I looked it up on the song meanings page, and aside for some effusive praise for their collaborators here (Ida Pearle and Zach Wallace apparently did all of their parts in four hours), there's the following gnomic utterance: "guy i know blew off part of his hand with a firecracker when he was a kid..."

Okay, so that's the last part of the song, Alan. How the hell do you get from that image to the rest? I love "Like a Forest," and I really wouldn't want the band to become any less opaque than they already are (I may not be able to convey to you in words what "Like a Forest" means, but like most Low songs I can feel the answer - kind of like the National, really). But you can see how this can occasionally get a bit frustrating.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Rope

seriously though, Low becoming a good band instead of an OK one coincides with Sally getting on board, this bodes poorly

So I'm skipping around the great wilderness of the internet, meaning to get down to today's entry but really just kind of farting around, and a variety of links I can't remember I ran into this thread about Zak Sally's departure(s) from Low, and the above comment from the esteemed John Darnielle with regards to Sally's announcement in 2003 that he was out of it, thanks, before he came back to open for Radiohead.

And now Zak is gone again, and I know I haven't talked about him that much here but that's because he has fallen prey to the great peril all bassists must watch for: His lines are so crucial to the songs, so skeletal (in the sense of essential, structural, not spindly) that it can be easy to just sort of elide talking about them except in the cryptic sense of talking about how well the songs are constructed or the propulsion some of them have or even melodies sometimes and etc. and then you feel a bit silly.

And now today's entry verges on the truly serendipitous for as I read Mr. Darnielle's long-ago point and think yes, I think I agree on this, and I always liked Long Division better and possibly this is why? I am also listening to my pre-selected song for the day and am in fact nodding gently along mostly to the bassline, which is steady and deep and very satisfying and underpins the same-as-it-ever-was drums (and I wish I could hijack the entry to talk about how much I love Mimi's initial and mostly untutored approach to the entry, but that'll have to do for now) and the skeletal (in the other sense) guitar, which comes in first as a counterpart to that patient bass and by the ending instrumental section has gone through some watery Durutti Column-meets-Neil Young phases (a phrase which finally, I think, pins down how I think of Alan's early tentative efforts towards axe heroism) before sort of counting the track out of existence - and I realise that not only was I unconsciously gravitating towards the bass in a Low song, reinforcing Darnielle's point, I am actually undercutting it (or at least my perception of it) because "Rope" is from I Could Live in Hope and thus this is John Nichols and thus maybe the huge jump from here to Long Division is not because of personnel changes and yet this does sound a lot like what I think of as "a Zak Sally bassline" and oh now I'm just being unfair to both bassists.

And then I go look at my salvaged song description page, written by Alan, and "Rope" has precisely the following written about it: all about the bass part john brought in. fun song to play in the bars ("you're gonna need more. . .") and hmmmm. I mean, you can't generalise how a band works or how songs get created and you especially can't from a first, rather tentative but really quite promising album to the rest of a now-lengthy career but is it coincidence that one of my favourite songs from said debut is anchored so firmly around the (sonically) implacable Nichols? And I think yes and yet no, for while musically it's the bass I'm really grooving too (and a good Low song with bass causes me to groove along in a way that, no really, usually only something like good dub does) my other main source of... satisfaction, I guess? from "Rope" is definitely in Alan's delivery. I mean, this is one of the most crucially titled songs in Low's discography, for the lyrics consist entirely of

You're
You're
You're gonna need more

You're
You're gonna need more

You're
You're gonna need more
You're
You're gonna need more
You're gonna need more

Don't ask me to kick any chairs out from under ya


That fucking 'rope' at the end of almost all the lines is so implicit it's almost explicit, and in fact when I sat down to write this I could have sworn up and down that it actually emerged at some point, may have in fact vocalised said word while singing along. So Alan's already teasing us, in a way, and the darkly humourous tone I think I hear in his voice both during the main body and especially during that muttered codicil that gives their/his fantastic music label Chairkickers Union it's name, presumably (and adds this whole other layer to the name, as when I first heard it I thought a union of charkickers would be referring to righteous protest, an unwillingness to let things lie - to consider that it could mean instead or (crucially!) in addition to that those who enable some sort of suicide is the sort of thing academics call "immensely provocative" and yet for now I just want to leave that as a sort of pregnant pause for you all to consider if you want) - he seems both amused and repulsed that you'd ask him or consider asking him for such a thing.

And interestingly, since I am often concerned with track times and album structures and sequencing, "Rope" is followed only by the (again) very codicil like "Sunshine" on Low's debut, and with it's 6 minute runtime is clearly the 'real' ending to which "Sunshine" is merely the ironic or at least contrapuntal response. So the idea that Alan Sparhawk might be a bit (in his own words) "mentally unstable" or at least have a fairly dark and yet black humourous disposition in his music despite his rep as a Mormon (because we all know what that means or do we I don't think we do?) is rooted allllll the way back in their debut and makes "Rope" interesting as well as good, although I know which one I'd pick if I had a choice. And I have no idea how we got here from bassists, but if my next couple entries don't have quite so many moments of weird synchronicity when they are being pondered which makes me go all stream of consciousness then honestly I won't mind a bit.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Canada

I'm not scared of waking up / I'm not afraid of getting cut...

Okay, back on track. My life is both very slow and kind of busy right now, as I'm not single again. Which means less is getting done but also less free time. You know how it is.

When I wrote about anger and "Pissing," I originally intended to write about this. Not because it's angry, not at all really, but because there's an energy to "Canada" that I don't think even Low's other loud 'rock' songs manage. Part of it, it may or may not surprise you to know, is because I'm Canadian. Alan sings (and Mimi darkly repeats) "You can't take that stuff to Canada / You can't take it anywhere" three times in the song, and it's not exactly an unambiguously positive sentiment, but I still get a charge out of it - like a crowd at a concert cheering the mention of their home city, it's just a Pavlovian response.

But let me get back to Mimi's part in "Canada." She shadows Alan's mild caterwaul through the lines of the song with her own low, breathy voice, sounding simultaneously reproachingly parental and darkly forboding. Alan sings "You can't take it anywhere" with an exclamation point, Mimi with a period. Oddly enough it only adds to the charge this track gives me. And listen to the construction; starting out with a prolonged intro featuring what's either a heavily distorted bass or some keyboards before launching into what for most bands would be a midtempo stomp but for Low (especially after "(That's How You Sing) Amazing Grace") is thrilling, triumphant, forceful. Mimi hits the drums at a speed she's mustered at least a few times before, but whatever Alan is playing (is it power chords or something? my musicology is nonexistent) and sings those defiant open lines and I have to fight the urge to pump my fist.

I always figured the song was somehow about drug trafficking; the second verse, for example, is

You could la la la la la
And you could lie to all your friends
But you can't take that stuff to Canada
You can't take it anywhere


which for some reason fits, in my head. I mean, we're a pretty liberal society - if you can't get your pot into Canada, you're pretty much screwed. But as always with Low, I'm probably way off the mark. The one bit of the song that provides the needed calm to let the closing rendition of the chorus have the impact it needs connects up with all the other self-doubting/lacerating lines Alan exhibits through the discography but especially from Trust onwards:

I used to have a golden tongue
But now the words just feel like stones


Even that first line feels as if Alan's trapped halfway between a sincere albeit confident assessment of his talents and bitter mockery ("golden tongue" just feels a bit far for sincerity given the austerity of Alan's work), and although I maintain (possibly in the minority?) that Trust is 'classic' Low at the peak of their powers, giving their old template one last fair shake before branching out in new directions in their last two records, for someone who originally wanted to play really slow partly as a joke I can see how even that masterpiece as insincere or otherwise shameful. And I still maintain that one way to look at the increasingly negative or critical cast of Alan's lyrics over the last three albums is to wonder if he hasn't had a bit of crisis of faith during that period, which would add another layer to the words feeling "like stones" in his mouth.

Don't get me wrong, pretty much anything off of Drums and Guns is more radical for the band than even an obvious step forward like "Canada," but they don't get me so excited. I hope and kind of expect they'll play this one live when I see them at the end of June, and I think it'll be great. Even Low can use a pounding, surging anthem, but it's unsurprising that theirs would be so relatively knotted and fraught. Despite the interesting undercurrents, however, "Canada" mostly exists for me as a feeling of release and velocity.

Also the video is hilarious.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Housekeeping

Ze links are updated, and an especial welcome extended to Kyle of All My Little Words, whom I inadvertantly pre-empted with this blog (just to note, if Low had been taken I think I would have gone with Belle & Sebastian, a band with a manageable catalog and about which I have much more mixed opinions). Any future oeuvreblogs that I hear about will be added there, unless they really piss me off or something. Things return to normality here on Monday; the week got busier than I expected, and I'm still extremely tired. For now go out and watch Knocked Up and something - I'm currently trying to figure out whether I want to write up "Canada" or "Breaker" for Monday.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Pissing

I am a person who gets mad easily. I would say I get mad irrationally, but that kind of seems like a truism. I'm not mad right now (I find that those of us who can blow up usually don't spend too long stewing about it), and I wasn't for most of the day, but I did have a good maybe five minutes of full-on seeing red. For those of you without tempers (lucky!), I can inform you that "seeing red" isn't nearly as figurative as you might think. I wasn't angry about anything important, I didn't do anything about it and it's gone away entirely, but for that period of time my vision was actually tinged with what I can only assume was blood (I can't think of any other reason one's vision would become tinged throughout with red, but I'm also not a biologist).

This is a state that, it may not surprise you, Low don't tackle very often. Oh, they do anger, but usually of the clenched-teeth stifled kind, or the baffled kind, or the righteous kind (or, occasionally, of the self-righteous kind, but we'll save that for later). The song that might come closest is also in all probability my favourite Low song.

Now, I don't want to pretend I'm some sort of constantly angry person, and I'm not wholly sure why I love "Pissing" so much. It's certainly striking; even more so than its album-mate "Everybody's Song" and precursors like "Stars Gone Out" it's loud, starting ominously with Zak's deathknell bass and the beginnings of what will soon swell to some of the loudest, most layered guitar on any Low track. Alan and Mimi's singing is fairly straightforward for them, very much in line with what you'd expect, but the track just slowly builds and builds over Mimi's steady percussion until three minutes in the wail of the vocals builds to a point and the song explodes. There are more intense Low songs lyrically, but not sonically; the menace in the air is palpable and more than even a song like "Don't Understand;" there the threat is approaching, in "Pissing" it reaches us. The lyrics are, at most, abstract:

I can't see
Sing the darker of

Pissing on my toes

Knowing what I know
I know

I'm waiting
Like a loyal whore*

Under every stone

Lovers sleep alone
Alone
Alone

Lovers sleep alone
Alone
Alone


It's between those two despairing cries of "Lovers sleep alone" (sung, of course, together by Alan and Mimi) that the song really kicks in. Through it all the rhythm section just continues to ratchet along, drawing the track tighter and tighter. "Pissing" envelops you just like rage does, and then it recedes, the bass never slowing, the drums never pausing until the very end. When it hits, the track stops suddenly, but there's no other way to get out of "Pissing." It descends on you like a rage, and like a rage it snaps suddenly, leaving you clear-eyed and dazed.

Seeing Low live, which I've done once and will do again soon when they open for Wilco, is one of the best things I've ever done, and the version of "Pissing" I saw then was just monumental. Until you've seen Zak's implacability at the bass, Alan's anguished contortions, Mimi's calm, you haven't really heard this song. It's louder as well, of course, which helps. It's a song that you have to let wrap around you, ugly to the point of beauty, brutal to the point of grace. It's not really like anything else in Low's catalog, and I'm not sure I want it to be, but it's one of the more visceral experiences you can get with a CD and a stereo.

*After it was pointed out to me, I agree that "Like a loyal whore" isn't the line here, although Low's own site says that. But I can definitely hear "Michael, blow your horn" instead. Which is just all sorts of interesting.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

It's not you, it's me

Apparently I mostly spend Fridays out these days, although today I had the excuse of joining a Merleau-Ponty reading group formed by some of my fellow Philosophy grad students here. So I think for now at least, unless the itch grabs me or there's a great outpouring of sadness, I'm going to stick with a song a day, Monday-Thursday.

Also, it's nice to see little story in New York Magazine on "ouvreblogs," but a little disappointing to see them mentioning a ton of them and not this one. Ah well.