and I can hear 'em


Sunday, December 30, 2007

Christmas

Despite the commerce involved, we hope you will consider this our gift to you. Best wishes.

- Mimi, Alan & Zak


Sometimes I listen to Low's mini-album Christmas without the covers. Low's version of "Little Drummer Boy" is shoegazerrific in a way they wouldn't really be outside of it, the remix of "Joan of Arc," and maybe "Whitetail" and is the track they're probably best known for in many circles. (Thank you, Gap Christmas ads - the fact I can't find this one on Youtube is kind of sad) "Blue Christmas" is given an oddly sexy (because so chaste, despite the smokey nightclub ambience - Alan admits that it was "very strange playing all those jazz chords") reading by Mimi that makes it easily my favourite version of the song, and "Silent Night" is probably tailor made for the band's sound, especially at the time. They do it nearly a cappella and it's gorgeous, of course.

But strip Christmas of these for a listen or two, taking it from under thirty minutes to under twenty, and the shapes of the other songs emerge much more clearly. "Just Like Christmas," a "true story from our spring '99 tour in europe," got most of the good word, which makes sense because its Spector sleighbells and festively fuzzy drums marked at the time one of the band's bigger excursions into the pop realm. There's something almost candy-coated about the way the refrain sounds; it's too short to be much more than a trifle, but given how many different moods the album will explore it's nice to have a little uncomplicated joy ("The beds were small / But we felt so young / It was just like Christmas") to begin with. The band messed around with many different ways of doing the song until they hit on using Steve Fisk's Optigan, which they also used when Fisk produced The Curtain Hits the Cast. It's the Optigan that also gives "Little Drummer Boy" its luminous cloud feeling, so I kind of wish they'd use it again (although I do love the little portable organ they use now).

"Long Way Around the Sea," the title of which always reminds me of another song, is their only self-penned song here to dig into the history of Christmas. Here Alan and Mimi are the Three Wise Men; there's a straightforward telling of their story, and especially after the fizz of "Just Like Christmas" the solemnity s striking. There is the feeling of a great honour and a corresponding burden; when the angel tells them to avoid Herod on the way back it's practically a miracle but compared to the birth of Jesus it doesn't seem like much, to them or to us. As with so many of Low's songs from around this time, the really important part is the hushed grandeur they give to the simply repetition of a line: "Take the long way around the sea."

After the beautiful haze of "Little Drummer Boy" lifts, we get probably my favourite explicitly religious Low song ever, "If You Were Born Today" (also a single in 1997, b/w "Silent Night"). I've heard people complain that it's too religious, and I'm not exactly sure why. Minus a repetition of the first section at the end, here are the lyrics:

If you were born today
We'd kill you by age eight
Never get the chance to say:

Joy to the world and
Peace on the earth
Forgive them for they know not what they do

Blessed are the meek and
Blessed are the humble
Blessed are the ninety and nine

Deny the flesh
Deny all that's evil
Tonight you'll deny me thrice


It's that first section that probably leads Alan to say the song is "hard to talk about what it's about without making some boring social commentary." But for me the focus is more on what Alan picks out from what Jesus said. The first two lines of that section are obvious ones for Christmastime, but then "Forgive them for they know not what they do"? Ending with "Tonight you'll deny me thrice"? As always, Low's portrayal of Christianity isn't a self-righteous or sanctimonious one. The emphasis is on love and mercy, to be sure, but whereas our less savoury modern 'christians' leaven that with the kind of fear and hatred that Fred Clark memorably disassembles over at Slacktivist (Fred is, of course, himself an evangelical Christian, but he's a real one), Low leaven that with the sadness and peril of human frailty, along with a deep compassion for that frailty.

I was reading Slacktivist a little while ago when I got to this entry, which I think is worth looking at in some detail for the way it intersects with Low's religious themes. Fred quotes 1 Corinthians 10:13 (""No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to us all") and says of it: If you're a preacher, and if you possess the slightest bit of self-awareness, that's problematic. It means that preaching against any temptation or sin implicates your entire congregation and yourself as well. That can be really uncomfortable for all involved. Pick any of the seven deadlies or the 10 commandments and you risk alienating everyone in the pews and exposing yourself as less than perfect. Which, of course, Fred thinks we not only should do but have to do, and which is something that happens over and over in Low's music, implicitly or explicitly. Later, having gotten into G.K. Chesterton, Fred writes Chesterton, like Paul, could be a scold. But also like Paul he was never so foolish as to think that he could exempt himself when he preached against sin and temptation. Seeking such an exemption by taking aim at safe targets leads to self-delusion, smugness and complacency, and it goes against everything the Bible (and experience) teaches us about human nature. Seeing as Christianity isn't actually about judging others from a safe remove (and hell, I'm not even a Christian myself), you'd think that kind of insight would be less rare in our popular culture, but Low are one of the very few sources I've seen that seem to get it.

So like a lot of their more religious songs there's something both tormented and quietly ecstatic about "If You Were Born Today," and that's pretty heavy (especially if you bought Christmas because you liked that Gap ad). It's not that "Blue Christmas" is particularly easy going in comparison - in fact, it's the one time in their career when Low seemed to be taking tips from the Cowboy Junkies, a great band that could at best described as lugubrious. But it does shift the focus back to the here and now rather sharply. "Silent Night," recorded in Alan and Mimi's kitchen with a stereo microphone, is the one time on Christmas that a Christmas carol sounds just like that - like a carol, a traditional song that Low aren't so much transforming as just performing. That's not a complaint, mind you.

But after that, with some guitar strums and a few triangle hits, we get one of Low's hidden gems: "Taking Down the Tree." Given the brief length (2:44) and seemingly banal subject matter (written while actually taking down the tree!), you'd think this wouldn't be much; the lyrics suggest otherwise.

Careful, one by one
It is undone
Seems before it's over
It's begun

Another broken reindeer
Another candle
Another velvet ribbon
Another nosebleed

Winding up the lights
We set the star so high
So high
So high


From such humble beginnings (it sounds almost as if Alan is playing a bass ukulele at times!), "Taking Down the Tree" blossoms into a surprisingly lush, beautiful song, the closing harmonizations of "So high" being among the most blissful moments in the band's catalogue. I love that seemingly random "Another nosebleed" line, although Alan reveals that "the nosebleed refers to mim's dry weather problem." More than anything else, this song feels like Christmas to me - the quotidian cleaning up, the joy, the anticipation, the wonder (if you get in the right mood). When the keyboard and Mimi come in and Zak shifts into slightly higher gear on the last section, it's among my favourite moments in all of Low's discography.

We've still got one brief morsel left, though; "One Special Gift." Alan was going to sing it, but he "thought it sounded too much like smog," which I can see. So Mimi gets it, and adlibs the closing "...for one special guest" line that ends the album. The song is an especially slow, if short, crawl, and although the nieces and nephews and friends they buy gifts for aren't discounted (these days, I imagine Hollis would have to be in there somewhere), but the reverence with which Mimi sings of the one special gift is pretty special.

Also pretty special is the packaging; a rich red cardboard slipcase with a beautifully minimalist snowscape by Zak on the front, I love everything about it: the font, the silver ink, the snowflake design on the disc, and that little message from the band inside, still one of the most heartwarming things I've ever seen in a CD, despite the commerce involved.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The last time(?)

I should have posted here a week or so ago... I'm on my last push to get the first draft of my thesis out, and I can't really justify doing any more posts here until that's done. It might be a little while (end of January should be the very latest), and after that things should get back to normal on a permanent basis; editing and re-writing never takes as long as writing does. Sorry about the delay, as always there is an RSS feed available for those who want to keep tabs.