and I can hear 'em


Monday, November 26, 2007

The Plan

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

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

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


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

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

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



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

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Slide

I organize my CD collection a little oddly, at least right now. (NB. "right now" = "since I moved in to this apartment, in 2004 or so") My large, wall-mounted Ikea CD shelf fell when I was first moving in (you have no idea how much that upset me), and when putting stuff back on it, I decided this was the perfect opportunity to try and pare down the old CD collection. As I believe I've mentioned on TMW,TMW previously, I felt I had more CDs than I needed, and my new scheme was to only keep CDs that I would actually play. CDs I respected, even liked, that I never had the urge to listen to? Gone! I wanted to be someone who loved music, not just a collector, and I wanted my CDs to reflect that. I love the Beatles, sure, but I barely listen to them; Sgt. Pepper's and maybe Revolver should suffice. That sort of thing.

The piles of CDs adorning my desk, kitchen table and stereo shelf out in the front room of my apartment suggest that I've backslid on that a bit, but the spirit of the thing is still pretty important to me. That would be why only three and a half shelves of my CD collection are actually ordered, the rest a sprawling mess awaiting my decision as to whether or not I'll keep it. Oh sure, there are albums in the mess I know I'm going to keep, but I have a method! Since I keep some of the best/favourite tracks from every album in my "real" collection on my computer, I have to go through them, listen to them again and decide what to add to my massive "Sorted Music" playlist on the Mac (something that is rather rigourously guarded by me, and I guess constitutes my own personal radio or whatever). In the back of my head is the idea that when I have more free time I'll sort through it all, sell a shitload of it off and organize the rest (I've thinking recently of dividing by genre, and then within genre sticking with my tried and true and boring "alphabetical by artist, then chronological by title" structure). And I used to use the now seemingly defunct site skivsamling.nu to keep track of what was actually "in" my collection (I desperately need a replacement, hopefully a public one; Delicious Library looks neat, but I don't have a webcam). But I've let it, erm, slide.

What, you may ask, does that have to do with "Slide," another track from Low's debut I Could Live in Hope? Honestly, not that much. But this record is the only Low CD I own (well, it and the Christmas album, on which obviously more at a later date) that has yet to be filed in the "official" collection. It's going to be, of course; I long ago decided that Low are one of those bands, maybe the one band for me, where I am in addition to (and because of) my love of them also a collector. I didn't buy the "Dinosaur Act" CDS because it had any tracks I didn't have, after all. But aside from the two obvious standouts ("Words" and "Rope" - I already have the demo of "Lullabye" from the box set in iTunes) I have no real idea what to cull from I Could Live in Hope, so I'm leaving the matter open until I'm done the album in TMW,TMW. Since my normal practice is to play the song on repeat as I write about it, as I'm doing now, that means I'll have heard the whole album many times over, hopefully enough to pick a few more tracks to save for the playlist.

I'm not sure yet whether "Slide" will make it. Like most of Low's debut I find it pleasant but not exactly gripping, although there's some interesting stuff to find in it if you dig. Alan wrote of it, mim doing harmony to me works well, but my first attempt to harmonize to her isn't so hot. i remember this song hurt my hand to play on guitar. i like the echo-y dub drums. i love the half-spoken "you wait. . ." mim vocal.

Well, wow. I wouldn't have picked up half of those things, to be honest. I don't play guitar and so nothing about the clear, trembling, bright guitar notes struck me as anything painful to play, and I don't find the drums terribly dubby. I'm not sure I'd consciously noticed either Alan's slightly off-kilter harmony (which I actually love; they still kind of mesh, but sound separate as well, which sounds incredible) or the fact that in the second verse Mimi dips into spoken word for about half a line. I actually don't like that bit; if she'd done the whole line I think it would have been more effective. As it is, except for those small touches it's pretty standard for their work at the time; a minute of softly beautiful intro, then some brief, inscrutable lyrics, then an outro. The song makes me think of waiting in line at the third floor of the University Centre to fill out some paperwork:

They tell you come tomorrow
Nothing for you now
You listen so intently
And slide
Slide
Slide
Slide

Hearing only yourself
You wait for the truth
How can you get it
When all you do
Is slide?
Slide
Slide
Slide


Those first two lines of the second verse remind me, sadly, of too many undergrads (from both my own undergrad and now that I'm a TA), and mark an interesting shift in emphasis from the first verse. The blame, if there is any, seemed to be on the "they," and now it's on the "you." I've been doing a fair amount of sliding myself, in terms of thesis work recently, and the reproach of the second verse seems fair enough to me. Although one thing that's not quite fair is how warm and comforting and inviting Alan and Mimi's not-harmony makes that "slide" sound when they sing it.



PS. Interestingly enough, there are two other songs that I absolutely love by different bands both called "The Slide Song." Spiritualized's version, from their great Pure Phase album, is one of that album's most heavenly, smack-kissed drones of heartache. The Afhan Whigs' is one of the highlights of the second half of the perfect 1965 album, with a totally fucking undeniable chorus. Neither of the very different tracks ever actually use the word "slide" in their lyrics.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Monkey

Some sort of blare, stiffly echoing drums, the blare modulates down into a thick burble, and then

Oh my my
Little white lie
Swear I'm gonna make it right
This time

It's like a radio
Turning way down low
Telling me things I do not know
I know

Tonight you will be mine
Tonight the monkey dies
Tonight you will be mine
Tonight the monkey dies


The first time I heard "Monkey," a song I was prepared to dislike, it instantly became my least favourite Low song. Why was I prepared to dislike it?

- The title. I have an odd reaction to tracklistings of albums I'm anticipating. Either the song titles will sound 'cool' to me, and I'll anticipate it even more (see both Burial albums, for example), or else they'll sound stupid and ill-fitting, and I begin to dread the album. Most of the time in the latter case, once I've heard the songs the titles make sense (even if they seemed silly to me as stand-alone entities) and I often wind up liking them as titles quite a bit. I am aware this is a fairly shallow thing to do, and I think it stems from living in Kincardine before the advent of Napster and high speed connections; often, reading the allmusic entry on an album over and over was all I could do until the next time we passed through a city with an HMV, and I probably place too much emphasis on album art, album title and song titles as a result. For bands I already love (like Low), I can't say it's ever made me pass on giving a record or a song a chance; for bands I don't already know, though, I'm sure in the absence of strong recommendations it's made me miss out on some stuff. But we're all going to miss some stuff, and this is as good a rationale for sorting through the drifts of modern music as any.

- The change in direction. I mean, most of the time the only way I really love a band's pronounced shift in tone/sound is when I come to their latter work first (anyone from Tindersticks to Wheat serve as examples), and I was definitely a major fan by the time The Great Destroyer came out. I didn't have the box yet, but I did have all of the preceding studio LPs and I was deeply unsure that any sort of major shift in Low's sound would be successful. This seems silly in retrospect (I'm having trouble accessing the Stylus Archives, but my review of the record is if anything a bit conservative in its grade), but I remember actually being nervous before queuing up The Great Destroyer for the first time.

- The fact that I was reviewing it for Stylus. I asked for the next Low album after seeing the hatchet job someone long gone had done on Trust, but at the time I had no idea this was going to be their "break from tradition" album; I was stressed out over the idea of covering one of my favourite bands (writing about stuff you really love is never easy) and by the possibility that I'd have to say it sucked.

So the first few times through "Monkey," it was tough going. That chorus, menacing in a more Lynchian/nonsensical way than most of Low's, was a sticking point (what did it mean?), and I was unused to Alan being so overtly as opposed to implicitly aggressive (even with a great backing performance from Mimi). I hadn't adjusted enough yet, hadn't let go of what I hoped/feared the album would be and just listened to it on its own terms. On those terms, it's pretty special, especially as Low moved in a different direction later; I'll save most of my take on it as a great road album until "Silver Rider" or maybe another tracks, but ultimately it became the most reassuring Low album just because it shows that pretty much whatever Low turn their hands to they can succeed at. If they one day make a shitty, Give Out But Don't Give Up style rock album, I'll know it's not because they can't make great rock music.

And that's exactly what "Monkey" is, once I let it breathe; if the sign of a really great rock song is that it'll make you sing along to (and feel the significance of) pretty much anything, then my love of belting out "Oh, tonight you will be mine / Tonight the monkey dies" speaks volumes. I had a brief moment of wondering whether the song was a crypto-attack on Darwinism at first (which is, I am quite sure, manifestly unfair to the band), but it's definitely more personal than tat. The second set of verses, before we settle into the lengthy end choruses, is especially powerful (if still tantalizingly out of reach):

Now who's to blame
We used to be the same
Now you won't let me speak your name
What a shame

It's a suicide
Shut up and drive
We're never gonna make the light
But it's alright


I'm a big fan of the sentiment "shut up and drive," of course, and that almost staticky organ(?) part underlying the whole song adds reams of atmosphere, which repeatedly culminates in some awesome, thunderous cymbal work from Mimi between choruses (and accompanied by more organ and Alan's raging guitar). It's not my favourite on the album by any stretch, but when I play The Great Destroyer at work I definitely have to fight the urge to sing along and play a little air guitar.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Tonight

So let's talk about album tracks. As I might have previously mentioned, most of my favourite albums are very concise (I'm thinking of anything from Closer and Armed Forces to Phosphorescent's Pride and Drums and Guns). "Album tracks," as the term is usually conceived among music fans, don't recall occur in those cases; it's hard to say that "Isolation" or "Senior Service" or even "Hatchet" are filler. And longer albums that I love, like Trust, don't have filler, not exactly; but they do have songs that are valuable mainly in that they're aesthetic ballast, tracks that continue to convey the mood of the album or otherwise say or do something significant, but that aren't exactly highlights.

That's actually why I like the longer albums that I do; their scope and sprawl are just as important as the laser focus of some of my slimmer favourites. Trust especially; anything that's long enough and structured the right way to make me think of it as a vinyl double album (see my post on "John Prine") definitely qualifies as a record I love because of, not despite, its size. "Tonight" nestles in the middle of the second 'side,' one that's all about lulling you into complacency before grim Mormon fable "The Lamb" jars you back into uneasiness. This is the last track before "The Lamb" arguably tips Trust over the edge into a blackness it never recovers from (and who would want it to?), and it's suitably anticipatory.

It's the only Low song that comes to mind when I think of backwards music; the restless rustle of the backwards guitar and Mimi's not-quite-dubby phased out backing vocals are definitely the only Low track that make me think of My Majestic Star. Mimi's lead vocals (for, as with "See-Through," this is another solo turn for her, something that's been in painfully short supply recently!) are calmer and deeper than they sometimes are, carefully measuring off each line like it's a lullabye. She doesn't play drums here; it's just Alan and Zak (and presumably Tchad Blake, from behind the mixing desk) ebbing guitars in various ways behind here. It's not what you'd play as the curtains are about to come up for the first time, but what you might hear while they're still down.

A song like "Tonight" makes you wish that Alan was still gnomically parsing what Low's songs mean; the sound of her voice makes this track one of comfort, waiting, and hidden knowledge, but the sense of it eludes you:

Trying to keep time
Closer than we like
Memories still lie
Tonight

Faces of the day
Pressed up to your spine
Blessings still to come
Tonight
Tonight

Precious things unsaid
As the night begins
Who will hang his head
Tonight
Tonight
Tonight


I do love quoting lyrics, it's true, but the main reason I often just present full sets in these entries are of course two-fold: not only are they so short (if I wasn't giving each line its own space I'm pretty sure "Tonight" would take up about three lines) but I'm genuinely unsure which part is important enough to excerpt. "Faces of the day / Pressed up to your spine" certainly catches my eye in terms of sheer "what's going on here?" levels, but what does it mean? If there's a religious message here, then it certainly goes over my head (although really, "Tonight" is probably just yet another counterexample to anyone who still thinks of Low as a "Christian band" or what have you). That closing question, "Who will hang his head / Tonight," is going to come back in a very bad way in "The Lamb" once the last bits of guitar filigree unwind. But for now, all breath is bated; the show is about to begin (even if you've just heard "Time Is the Diamond" a minute ago), and we're all in our seats.

Monday, November 5, 2007

See-Through

Aaaaaand we're back. Sorry about that; a heavy grad school/TAing/day job load, the death of Stylus, the trip to NYC to celebrate the death of Stylus - it's been a long month or so for me too, believe me. But I certainly didn't forget TMW,TMW (my thoughts on it ranged consistently from "fuck, I wish I had time to do an update on _____ tonight" to "oh god, I can't bring myself to work on anything right now... I'll do a post tomorrow, yeah, that's it!") during that span, and now that my responsibilities are less I should be able to get on with the project. I don't mean that in some kind of faux-tired "let's get this shit over with" kind of way; I'm still excited about it. Especially after running into what I think may be a deliberate shout out to one of Low's old songs.

I few weeks ago I caught up with the first third of the new season of Dexter, the improbably great show about a serial killer. I'll leave details about it on wikipedia for people who haven't watched (don't be scared off by the book descriptions if you read them, the show is different and much, much better). The last episode was called "See-Through."

Now, it says a lot more about me than Dexter that my thought when that title appeared on screen was "hmm, there's a Low song called that." I don't think you need to point out when you do one of these that you're a bit of an obsessive. But it's not a phrase you see in isolation that much, and usually when I've seen it, it's been without the dash. And while nothing in the actual episode suggests the song, it's certainly evocative of Dexter's path through much of the first season:

You were discovered
Bended
Over the dead

Only to find out
You were not
Even in the room

See-through but solid
Holy but complete
All will be followed
Seen to
Tended, none the least


Again, that's the whole song; only the middle of the 4:26 is taken up with Mimi's customarily luminous vocals, the rest being introduced by a slow bass pulse (apparently written by John Nichols before he left the band) and climaxing with Alan's increasingly forcefully pealing guitar part when Mimi sings the last line. I imagine I might be making it sound pretty standard, but to tell the truth I was pretty enraptured by this today; it's not exactly a stand-out track on the excellent Long Division (it comes after my beloved "Swingin'," for one thing), but in isolation it finally gets the chance to shine.

Admittedly a good deal of my current affection for "See-Through" stems from the Dexter connection, and the way that last verse manages to add some completely implicit menace to the proceedings (I, of course, am a huge fan of completely implicit menace). If she is singing to someone like Dexter, I doubt they'd be happy at being "followed, seen to, tended" after sort of getting away with it.... so maybe the second season is a better place to put "See-Through" after all.

The most cryptic part of Alan's comments about this song is one he echoes in a few other places: "we were listening to a lot of wire at the time." I love Wire as I love few other bands, and I really like Low's cover of their great "Mercy," but I'm not sure I hear any Wire influence on this one at all (and not just because Colin Newman and Mimi Parker are awfully far apart as singers). I'm generally a fan of finding out when musicians think a song sounds like a band or culture or anything like that when to me it patently does not; it reveals a little bit about our multiplicity when it comes to hearing, and it gives you a little insight. Sometimes this happens through titles (could "John Prine" be an example?), sometimes through comments. But in this case, it definitely has me listening to "See-Through" until I can spot the bit that sounds kind of like 154 - unless, of course, it's the mere fact that they may have unknowingly anticipated the likes of Dexter Morgan with this one. And if you don't think that's Wire-esque, I'd direct you to "The Other Window," just for starters.