and I can hear 'em


Thursday, September 27, 2007

Breaker

There is fucking pounding (and pounding and POUNDING) and drilling and sawing and dropping and crashing and etc etc etc coming from the apartment below me, and it has been all day, since it woke me up at 10 am. Which would be a pretty normal time to wake up if I hadn't been out with coworkers until about 3:30 am the night before, and my throbbing headache probably wouldn't be persisting so long, in fact probably wouldn't have started if not for the racket.

It was there yesterday, it may not be there tomorrow (that's my suspicion, anyways). They probably went on break during the two hours I spent downtown doing errands. But they just won't shut up.

"Breaker" is based around four things: The opening, extremely odd drum machine shuffle (and if you didn't think drum machines can shuffle, you owe it to yourself to hear this one), the handclaps that keep monotonous time throughout, Alan and Mimi's strident vocals, and a fucking organ drone. It's the best/worst part of the song, three or four notes that just cycle, each lasting around five seconds. It does change tone, but all four are pretty abrasive. Coming after "Belarus" it's about as aggressive a track as they've ever put on an album. But not aggressive like "Canada" or even "Pissing." More aggressive like sitting next to someone on the subway and just saying the word "blood" under your breath over and over.*

After all, if "Pretty People" was a sort of warning about how far Low have come since "Walk Into the Sea," and "Belarus" is a reassurance that they haven't forgotten how to be pretty, then "Breaker" (and its choice as first single from Drums and Guns) is confirmation of which way we're going. It sounds nothing like they used to sound, even circa The Great Destroyer, and a piercing negativity surrounds both its sound and lyrics:

Our bodies break
And the blood just spills and spills
But here we sit debating math

It's just a shame
My hand just kills and kills
There's gotta be an end to that

There's gotta be an end to that


There's some pretty amazing backwards guitar between the second verse and the last line, which again isn't pretty so much as bracing. The pokey, syncopated drum machine stutter and handclaps up against the steady, biting drone of the organ (the portable, WWII vintage military chaplain's one I saw them use live, I believe) makes for something stark and bleak, and Alan and Mimi serve the sound not be resorting to prettiness or softness, but a kind of blaring clarion call approach that they've never used too often. It's not as harsh as, say, the "la la la"s at the end of "John Prine," but it's much closer to there than the gentle tone of "I Started a Joke."

They also performed the song live for the Daytrotter Sessions, which is a version much closer to what I saw in concert. The guy there talks about Sparhawk's "voice that couldn’t break glass if it were made of hammers," but I think he's got it precisely wrong. A few lines from Darnielle's "Wild Sage" (which he gaze a stunning, breath-stealing performance of on Tuesday) sums up Alan's voice here and elsewhere much better: "And then I think I hear angels in my ears / Like marbles being thrown against a mirror."

The live version is strikingly Crazy Horse-ish at times, and certainly retains the album version's feel for blare and finger-poked-in-eye tone. Alan's line about "debating math" brings to mind "Death of a Salesman" (again; I need to get to that one soon) but his basic point, about the way most of our lives are wasted compared to what's really important, is much bigger and much more bleak than that. "My hand just kills and kills" doesn't have to be sung from the perspective of a soldier to make sense, if you think about what makes our modern Western lifestyles possible. Drums and Guns is the first Low record to actually register as judgmental, although what saves it to me is that unlike practically everything else I've ever seen/heard/read that deserves that tag, Low manage to avoid self-righteousness. In that sense (although only that sense), this album is their The Holy Bible. And in their way, both are like the construction this morning.

You know you should get up, you know you should have some water and an Advil and some healthy food. You stay in bed until 11:30, don't eat until 3 and then it's takeout. You're going out to a series of alcohol-related events this evening as well. It's times like this that the construction is worth it, as a spur to get you out of sitting in your apartment. And "Breaker" might actually penetrate, might actually get you to think about or even better to do something about the way we all live (the song title is both slightly mysterious and massively suggestive, eh?). The difference is, of course, "Breaker" lasts less than three minutes and sounds awesome and I choose whether or not to play it. The construction sounds are still going and I have no idea when they're going to stop.

"Breaker" also features a video in which Alan, dressed in an army uniform, eats an entire chocolate cake while Mimi and Matt clap away impassively behind him. At one point he reaches down to grab a second glass of milk. Nobody sings on camera.


* Thank you, Douglas Adams.

Monday, September 24, 2007

We are what we are

Ugh, I was going to try and get an entry done this morning but I'm kind of rushed and as a result inspiration is abandoning me; sadly, this is a problem because the Mountain Goats concert tomorrow night means I probably won't have a chance to do another one until Thursday. Hold tight, people; I may be slow, but I am persistent, and unlike sadly many of the blogs linked at the side I will be sticking with this. We just have to have a lull from time to time.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

I Started a Joke

Apparently Zak suggested covering the Bee Gees; a sentence that those who only know them from Saturday Night Fever and on might find kind of horrifying (although, I don't know, I think Low, especially 'classic' Low, tackling disco sounds kind of appealing...). But this was the Bee Gees of Idea and Odessa which is a very different, much more Beatlesque thing indeed. Alan said "someday we'll cover their whole first record," which is an idea that I can only hope he still finds interesting. Better than the Walkmen doing Nilsson, anyways.

I can't decide if I like the original (the only thing Robin Gibb has ever sung that I've loved is the demo of "Sing Slowly Sisters" I got on my computer which is, quite frankly, fucking spooky), and given the weirdness of the lyrics I'm not even sure what I think of Low's decision to cover it (although hey, if it's good enough for Faith No More, who I never would have guessed would tackle this one straight, then why not?). But it turns out okay.

Crucially, Mimi sings lead, with Alan keeping himself to backing "ohhhh ohhhh"s. He would have done a good job too, but given the cruel twist in his voice that is his greatest strength I could see him making "I Started a Joke" as near painful to listen to. It's a song of teenage self-pity, something that only works if sung with total conviction, but that could get to be too much if sung by the guy who invests "John Prine," "Breaker," and so on with such power. Which doesn't mean I think Alan takes the song more seriously than Mimi or anything, just that I'm not sure he could sing it with the lightness she brings to "I Started a Joke." (then again, the Journey cover suggests I'm thinking about this too much)

I really like Low's approach to covers (do plenty, but keep them off the albums, basically), as their sound even now is different enough structurally from a pop song like this one that it'd stick out like a sore thumb on any of their records. But without slowing it down too much or altering the melody they make it unmistakably their own, to the extent that the first time I heard it I went "of course, of all the Bee Gees songs that's the one that sounds the most Low." I think it's an example of their sense of humour, actually, to play it so straight, especially for a compilation benefiting the late LA club Jabberjaw, one of the band's first and favourite clubs to play. This one isn't a "Down by the River," it isn't even a "Blue-Eyed Devil" (where Low do exactly what you'd expect them to do to a very un-Low like song, albeit to great effect). Hell, this isn't even as radical a cover as Cowboy Junkies' take on "Sweet Jane" or "Powderfinger." It strips the quavery urgency from the Bee Gees' version, mostly due to Mimi's patient drums and laid back vocals, but she doesn't turn it into a joke. She doesn't give the "I looked at the skies" part the vocal stick that Mike Patton does, but the song does go more dramatic there; the difference is in the calm it returns to with the "I finally died" part. Like all good versions of this song, the tone is different enough once they get to "I looked at the skies" it's as if a different, and better, song has broken into the rather silly "joke/crying," "crying/laughing" structure of the verse. There isn't really a chorus, but you don't notice that the first couple of times, which gives you an idea of how catchy the various parts are.

It's an interesting (for better or worse) song done well. Not exactly the most earth-shaking thing Low have done, although the fact that some have theorized that the song is sung from the perspective of the devil is all kinds of interesting. It's the Low song you can put on a mix tape for your mom without worrying. Nothing wrong with that, really.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Throw Out the Line

1. Okay, so with grad school and my job(s) et al, clearly any sort of real scheduling is beyond me. I'll be trying to do entries as often as possible. Please be patient, and maybe utilize our handy dandy RSS feed? It's sad to see so many other oeuvreblogs slow or even stop, but I promise you TMW,TMW will keep going until it's done, no matter how long that takes. I may only manage an entry or two (or three) a week for a while, though.

2. Often with Low's songs, especially from the Long Division/The Curtain Hits the Cast period, my impression of each track in my memory when I'm not actually listening to them can be reduced to a single glowing moment. Often this moment is the chorus/refrain/title, and so when I think of the song I tend to focus on that moment to the exclusion of all else. While writing TMW,TMW I've noticed that tendency and have started trying to compensate for it. It's mostly worked, and having Low songs I know and love surprise me has gotten correspondingly rarer. But "Throw Out the Line" still did - so much of the song for me is that lambent moment when Alan and Mimi call out "throw out the line" that I'd remembered it as starting the song. In reality you have 20 minutes of prime watery guitar and unhurried cymbal/snare timekeeping (plus bass, back there somewhere, in that early-Low way where I can never quite place it). It's that trick they pull again, where the emotional/literal content of whatever they're singing when they sing like that is utterly subsumed by the way they sing, until "throw out the line" might as well be a source of comfort, hope, and love. They sing the title twice before the rest of the lyrics, and then four time after. For once it's those first two times that are more important, gifting the beginning of the song with a kind of still light that evokes images of connection and aid more than the rest of the song really winds up warranting; at least, if you can get past that surface impression and actually pay attention. I'm not being facetious; it actually is difficult when Alan and Mimi sing like that.

3. The rest of the lyrics are pretty interesting. It's apparently "about a friend from school who was an oceanographer in alaska," and also contains "the epitome of our water theme hang-up" (cf. I guess "Sea"? When Alan writes that I go "oh right, I guess they were kind of into water at the time," but I have a damn hard time thinking of examples other than the aquatic tremble of Alan's amp). I've got family in Alaska (the Kodiak Islands, actually) and have been up to visit, and maybe that's why "Throw Out the Line" is more redolent for me of wilderness than most of Low's work ("Sunflower" is the only other track I can think of that does that, and for similarly irrational/personal/obscure reasons). But in any case, it's interesting that the other lyrics aren't broken up by any renditions of the title refrain, and don't even really have a verse break between them, although the topic does seem to change half way through:

Man overboard
Passenger fall
Maybe the angels'll take him
Come back no more
Bride of my thoughts and anger
Nothing to show
Patience and strength come springtime
Where will you go?


Some of it makes sense with the story of Alan's friend - "Man overboard" works with oceanography, and "Patience and strength come springtime / Where will you go?" definitely sounds like Alaska. But what I wonder, again, about Alan's songwriting methods when there was some sort of germ from people/situations in his real life, is there actually a more sinister/involved backstory than he told us? Or did he just tend to build on this kind of drama and menace from the bare facts? I'm inclined towards the latter (seems like a more regular way to do things), but I wonder sometimes.

4. It's interesting how different Alan's take on the song from inside is, a regular feature of Low's old song backgrounds page. He says "wish i would have relaxed a bit on the vocal. sounds like someone's stringin' me up," but I really don't hear it. Honestly, his voice sounds more pinched on "Swingin'" among others, and mostly what I think of his vocals here is how smooth and clear he sounds along Mimi. He definitely sounds relaxed to me, but who knows - if he'd done it the way he later wished he did, maybe I'd love the results even more.

5. I picked "Throw Out the Line" mostly because after spending the weekend at a paddle-in camping site at Algonquin Park with family, I've definitely been feeling kind of wilderness-y. And also because the single best moment of the weekend was definitely sitting in a canoe with my girlfriend in a completely still lake, the dusk setting, mist coming off of the water, and hearing silence for the first time in years. I wouldn't have wanted to hear this song then, but its calm inevitability (another quality of those years that Low have mastered and thus moved past) recalls the moment for me, especially given the nautical theme.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Landlord

In the long interregnum between The Curtain Hits the Cast and Secret Name, Low made their most significant EP. At 35 minutes, Songs For a Dead Pilot might as well be a mini-album, and the stuff here is more striking than anything from the Transmission EP or any of their other small collections. It's telling that SFaDP is the one of the few EPs that isn't collected on A Lifetime of Temporary Relief, and although I've only had access to these tracks for a short while I already know it's one of my favourite Low releases.

It also seems to be one, at least from Alan's old notes, with significant input from Zak. For Landlord Alan notes that "zak brought the rough idea in. it's about trying to make music in your tiny appartment. you always sound cautious and tiny," which is an interesting place for a song to start from. And although the song is nearly seven minutes, it definitely holds pride of place as the most painstakingly introverted track Low has made yet, even if the lyrics do venture a bit further afield:

let's
keep
the landlord in mind, as
the microphones pick up
the soft ones.

let's
keep
the carpets in mind, as
the microphones pick up
the soft ones,
the loud ones,
the slow ones,
the bright ones,
the meaningful ones,
the distance,
the good pets,
the wordless,
the stateless.


The intro to "Landlord" sounds pretty conventional for Low, post-The Curtain Hits the Cast, but as the first two minutes wind their way to the beginning of Alan's vocals things actually get slower and smaller. Everything but the ever-more-gently played guitar slowly reverses out of view, and then Alan (sounding as if he's singing through a sock) tremulously pleads with himself to keep it small, so we don't get kicked out.

But that second... "verse" seems inadequate, but you know what I mean... turns into a plea to consider the value of silence and of listening. As Alan stops singing at four and a half minutes the drum and bass come back in and the guitar strum gets stronger, brighter, but it all stays to a level that wouldn't rouse someone sleeping above or below. The brief, repeated guitar hook is one of the few ones in a Low song that I could imagine as part of a sped up (normal speed) noisy rock song, something I could see the Retribution Gospel Choir or especially the Black Eyed Snakes whipping out. Here it's quieter than the rest of the song. But the microphone picks it up.

Monday, September 10, 2007

In the Drugs

Sometimes you get so tired (cf. the sound of Bowie's voice during "Sometimes you get so lonely" in "Be My Wife"). I accidentally stabbed myself in the arm with a knife that was in the drying rack, trying to put a cup in the sink. I keep remembering this blog at night and forgetting it in the morning (I'll be better, I hope, now that I'm back at school and not working so much). I have to see people to talk about money. I have to see people to talk about school. I have to teach people. How can I teach people?

If there is a song by Low that functions like your mother giving you a hug, stroking your hair and saying "there, there" does, it is "In the Drugs." Which is utterly perverse. Gerry Beckley from America sings backing vocals. Marc Gartman provides pathologically spectral banjo (of all things). Bobby Woods plays organ and accordion. The song feels more syrupy than normal, but in a good way; the thick tone of the organ? The wonderfully fluted tones of Mimi's backing "ahhh ahhh"s (as opposed to her echoing Alan's lines)? The way that, twice, the banjo plucks slowly against the calm revolving of the voices? On the chorus Mimi stomps a few drum beats, but this is really about the accordion dipping low as "breaking like dolls / singing like birds / we always get what we deserve."

It's not sinister, for once. Any more than the Stoics were sinister. What you read into a phrase like "we always get what we deserve" is up to you, of course, but Alan sings it with a sad smile on his face, and Mimi breathes out the accompaniment like only someone who really loves their partner can manage. That one line, more than anything else probably, sums up what's wonderful and terrifying about the vocal bond between the two; how vividly the pulse of their life together seems to spring from that coo and sweep, how shockingly self-sufficient it seems.

I was a child
I was on fire
But I stayed alive while all else died


How is that not stark and foreboding like dozens of other Low songs? How did they summon up the plush, loving regret that turns that opening into sanctuary and resilience (albeit muted), not warning or reproach? Is there some hidden resonance with Beckley's inextricable backing tones? The unutterably mournful pause for organ/accordion near the end, does that transform things? The banjo shouldn't work. Especially with all that reverb (Tchad friggin' Blake, after all) and especially airdropped in so rarely. The verse/chorus melody is one of their sweetest, to be fair, but still. What alchemy pastes over the oblique, fragmented, probably meaningless lyrics? Why do I find myself turning to "In the Drugs" for comfort again and again?

I held my breath
What could I say
And I closed my eyes like Marvin Gaye
But now I've had enough


And Trust is indeed where Alan has had enough. God only knows who "You had your plan / A heavy hand," but the use of the the singular for plan makes me wonder. When did Marvin Gaye close his eyes? When he was shot by his (F)ather? Josh Rouse's "Marvin Gaye," from his album Home, is similarly cryptic. There is so no other song on Trust at all like "In the Drugs." I am not sure this anything else like it on any Low album. There are better songs on Trust, more beautiful ones. But none circle around the sad knowing/loving of this one and "we always get what we deserve," the moment of stillness that succeeds that line until Mimi pitches upwards again into "ahhhs" and they play the chorus with the subtlest possible muscle.

The line is supposed to be "It's in the drugs," repeated four or five times, and that seems to be what Mimi (and Beckley?) is singing. But most of the time, Alan sounds as if he is singing instead "It's in my drugs." Another clue. Or another resonance. Or nothing. I'd like to think I can still mostly be sort of objective about Low's music, but not this song. It means everything; as Tal Rosenberg at Stylus said once, "I've always been a firm believer that the best art somehow gives us a beautiful, vivid, and yet still vague impression of life and its meaning." He was talking abot a novel, or maybe a movie, but I feel that way here. To try and reduce the complexity of what I feel when I listen to "In the Drugs," how I feel lifted and comforted whether I was down or not, is to do the song violence, to mutilate it while cramming it into language. It is sufficient, and although I know not everyone would agree with me on this song, I hope to whatever God or Gods you have that you've heard something that does that for you as powerfully.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Dragonfly

It's weird, that deviations from my preferred pace here at TMW,TMW come from both being over worked, from being too active, and also from being too down. It's been a semi-shitty week, but today at work it blossomed into a full on storm of crap (probably the least pleasant shift I've worked yet, for a variety of reasons, and I've been working 6 days a week for a month or so now) and although I am supposed to be out drinking with friends I am sitting here staring at my keyboard. I even helped arrange tonight, there are people at the bar I would very much like to see, but I just don't want to leave the apartment. Don't get me wrong, I'm not depressed or anything, just feeling that finely tuned combination of exhausted, aching, demoralized and annoyed at humanity to keep me in for the night. Among my annoyances right now is that I can't remember what "Dragonfly" sounds like.

I've lent Drums and Guns to a friend, you see, and didn't rip it first. I can remember the lyrics and the melody, of course; but one of the things that makes this album and this song so great is the actual feel of the sound. I mean, I can YouTube up some live video but that only gets at part of the bitter, wasted beauty of the album version of "Dragonfly."

The main reason I wanted to hear this song tonight is for the way Alan sings "The lines of history / Some things should never be / Why do we even try? / There's no such thing as dragonfly pills," possibly the most negative section of any Low song (suggestions for rivals welcome in the comments, of course). I mean, he'd been singing a half nonsense, half significant account of dragonflies and pills and now comes a sudden disavowal, one that sounds angry with both us and himself for ever having taken him at his word. This review of the album is so stupid it's frustrating, and not because he doesn't like the album; the section on "Dragonfly" makes about as much sense as taking the Bible to be literal throughout, and the fact that Elliott seemingly has no faculties to perceive allegory, metaphor or even hallucination should give you an idea how well he does with the rest of Drums and Guns. Blustering that "Dragonfly" is "preposterous to the point of parody" assumes that the song is a straight, literal narrative, and that shows both such a lack of imagination and inferential charity that it makes my head hurt. And for christ's sake, this is music; even if the lyrics were as dumb as that review suggests, is there no dispensation for the way they hang in the air against that backing I can't quite summon to mind? The way Alan and Mimi wrench all possible pathos out of the refrain of "Maybe you're right" and leave it bleeding?

But I mean, one badly written review stumbled onto while looking for the album version of "Dragonfly" isn't really the point. Cloaked in an unintuitive narrative we have maybe Low's most despairing song. Is it worse to decide that you must have more "dragonfly pills," or to give up and decide that there's "no such thing"? I'm not sure whether there's supposed to be an anti-drug slant to the song, or any drug slant, but I do feel as if the "dragonfly pills" stand in for the potentially harmful but liberating effect of drugs, art, love, intoxication in general, and so the end of the song feels to me like a surrender. But a knowing one, and one done with full knowledge that our surrender is the easy and meager way out. Alan sounds not just upset but disappointed.

It's not, importantly, "why did we try?" but "why do we try?" That's the kind of zero-sum, overreacting, almost masochistic defeatism that doesn't make for a tremendously healthy lifestyle applied all the time, but then again we don't feel that way constantly (or at least I don't, and I hope Alan doesn't). And in measured doses, on the right kind of nights, that kind of scorched-earth pessimism can be exactly what we need.