Tuesday, December 2, 2008

I Remember

this is secretly one of our favourites

I'm not sure whether Alan's liner notes to the b-side version of "I Remember" found on A Lifetime of Temporary Relief are just indicating that alternate version of the opening song from Secret Name or to "I Remember" in general. I kind of hope it's the latter.

No disrespect to the version they recorded with Mimi singing lead for the UK "Immune" single. The drum machine and odd organ tones make for a striking arrangement, and of course Mimi herself sounds great. But for a record that at the time I'd been told was Low's loveliest, to come to Secret Name through a haze of muted optigan organ distortion (not, Alan takes pains to say, samples of record hiss), faraway kick drum and snare tap and Alan's exceedingly carefully placed guitar notes... "I Remember" in its primary form is a thing of total desolation, right down to Alan's high pitched but muted delivery of the song's few lines.

None of the notes in the box set or on Low's old web page reveal much about what's going on here, and even for Low at the time "I Remember"'s lyrics reach new heights of opaqueness and brevity:

I remember every number

I remember graduation

I remember painted faces

No they couldn't believe it was you
I knew

To have that be all that was said, to leave the last two minutes of a four minute song with nothing more than the odd guitar note (played on Gavin Rossdale's guitar, for whatever reason, and taken by Alan as more "evidence that i'm a pitiful guitar player," despite sounding fine to me) and the tender thump of the kick drum in Mimi's mini-kit... it's both somewhat frightening and oddly comforting. This, then, was a band not interested in coddling the listener, one that full realized how lush even something like "I Remember" could be in the right context. It also for the first time highlighted for me the menace lurking implicit in many of the songs on Things We Lost in the Fire - that couplet of "No they couldn't believe it was you / I knew" is redolent of crimes gone unpunished, or small town whispers, or just pasts you try to forget. In some ways it's almost paradigmatic in terms of the oblique violence lurking under much of Low's material at the time.

The b-side version injects too much warmth and colour into the arrangement to have quite the same effect, although without the example of the album version I would probably think it just another good, possibly even great Low song. But as it is this version just isn't cold enough, or stark enough, or harsh enough, to hit me as hard as the original. I can't think of any way to convey that effect to you except to note that, at one point, I stumbled upon this image under a long-forgotten context and all I could think was that it looks the way the Alan-sung "I Remember" feels:

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Santa's Coming Over

This song is terrifying. Up until the last verse, where the lyrics change a bit, it's also one of the bigger mismatches I've ever heard between lyrical content and lyrical delivery. Picture a song about waiting for Santa to come with presents, delivered a bit like a hybrid between "John Prine" and horror movie soundtrack music. When the drums come in, I got a little shiver. And the video! Those kids! When they start singing along, I thought something really bad was going to happen. It helps than Alan and Mimi's vocals are the most off-key and unsettling I've heard in a while, maybe ever. And while their site still features a picture of the band with Matt Livingston in it, if he has quit it's reflected in the fact that there seems to be almost no bass in this track.

I just heard about this song today, and so you are getting my very first reaction to it, but god it's a powerful track. I really hope this doesn't stay just a vinyl/download single, I could see this working on an album. Kudos to whoever did the video as well, it's very striking and immediately effective (especially the end of it, god).

Monday, October 27, 2008


Ye gods, it's been a while. Sorry. You sort of get out of the habit of doing these, and then.... come to think of it, this time of year seems to have been bad for my colleagues, some of whom are still plugging away and whose work I enjoy. There is one notable exception in terms of productivity: Matthew Perpetua's excellent Pop Songs 07-08 (lest we forget, the R.E.M. blog that got this whole thing rolling) has recently been completed for the moment, and in the most spectacular fashion imaginable: Michael Stipe graciously agreed to answer questions (including one of mine). So kudos and thanks again to Matthew.

As for here... well, I always say I intend to be better about posting, and it's true, but I certainly don't know what's going to happen. Except to say that as long as I'm still around, Too Many Words, Too Many Words will continue to plug away at the work of Low until I'm damn well finished.

And thus we come to today's song. I saw Wire live recently, although they didn't play "Heartbeat." I actually upgraded at the show - thanks to some birthday money, I bought the 1977-1979 box that covers their three albums from that span plus some live material. Between the rate at the show and the amount I got for selling Pink Flag, Chairs Missing and 154 (my favourite) at work, it was very reasonable. So I've certainly been thinking about Wire a fair amount recently, and it seemed sensible to cover Low's Wire, err, cover here.

Except when I actually compared the songs side by side, I started wondering whether we should really be calling it a 'cover.' The Wire version sounds like this:

If a bit more subdued on the album itself. Also, the album version, which I would have assumed was the only one Low would have heard by the time they set out to record their version of it, doesn't have any of the scraping guitar noise that's present near the end of the live version of the song here. Low's take was recorded at four in morning in early 1994 by friends in the band Eggs at American University for a possible b-side to "Violence" (neither song fit on the proposed 7", sadly). It then sat unmastered until 2004 when it was polished up for Low's box set. Any band willing to tackle both Wire and Joy Division (and able to give credible takes on both) is well worth respecting, but understandably "Heartbeat" has some rough edges.

I'm not sure whether it was a deliberate decision or not (although given the hour and the possible spontaneity of the recording session, I suspect the latter), but Mimi doesn't sing the lyrics to "Heartbeat" as Colin Newman did. The version on Chairs Missing and the above video goes:

I feel icy
I feel cold
I feel old
Is there something there behind me?
I'm sublime
I'm sublime
I'm sublime

I feel empty
I feel dark
I remark
I am mesmerized
By my own beat
Like a heartbeat
Like a heartbeat
Like a heartbeat
Like a heartbeat
In it's own beat
Like a heartbeat
Like a heartbeat
Like a heartbeat

Low's "Heartbeat" is arguably identifiably the same song (similar, although slower and quiter bass thrum; same melody line; similar lyrical structure), but Mimi sings instead:

I feel old
I feel cold
I'm so blind
Is there something there behind me?
Like a movie

I am mesmerised by my own beat
Like a heartbeat
Like a heartbeat
Like a heartbeat
Like a heartbeat

This is a cover the way you might do it, singing to yourself in the shower. The gist is retained, but the details are very different. The guitar is more granular, the room sound is heavy, and after Mimi stops singing the track dithers for a while before something (an idling vehicle? a faulty washing machine? a deliberate effect?) slowly overwhelms the track in a similar but more total and less abrasive way as the scraping sounds on Wire's live performance of "Heartbeat" above.

This cover retains the spirit well enough, in fact, that until I played them back-to-back to write this entry, I would have assumed that Mimi sings basically the same thing Colin Newman did. He detached melancholy is different from his diffident spitefulness, but both songs are claustrophobic in their inward turn (and both, in fact, seem to implicitly criticize this lack of contact with outward humanity). For all I know, Low's "Heartbeat" is a fluke, brought on by spur of the moment decisions and fatigue, but it feels like the most faithful treatment Wire could have hoped for.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

"I have hope and love for mankind"

I keep trying to find the time to write another entry (and should be able to do so pretty soon), but for now, he's an interview I did with Alan for PopMatters.

Saturday, August 23, 2008


probably one of our most self loathing songs. it's easier to be this obvious when you're younger. age makes you want to hide such feelings, or at least be more cryptic, unfortunately sometimes. hard to play now without feeling like a cry-baby. i'm not sure if that's good or bad.

Oh Alan, I know how you feel - do I ever! August has been a mercilessly busy month, and also the closest I've had to a vacation in a while, but I am surprisingly eager to get back to things, even if various factors (not least of which is my impending search for a new job, I think) mean this will still be a gradual process. I'm trying to do this semi-systematically, though, and so I noted that it'd been a while since I did anything from Low's debut. While looking at Alan's notes on the few I haven't covered, I stumbled upon the above - and it so intrigued me that I forgot for a second that I couldn't hum "Drag" to you if you held a gun to my head.

This was further reinforced for me when I went to look up its lyrics, which are kept starkly minimalist on the site I usually use:

I'm sorry but I can't hold on
It works much better if I let it drag me around

I'm sorry if I'm losing ground
It works much better if I let it drag me around

Five and a quarter minutes, and that's what you get. It's kind of surprising, though, that Alan considered this their most self-loathing song, even at the time (pre-Trust). I guess to a certain mindset, that kind of admission of powerlessness feels horrible. I am thinking of someone I know who fainted recently and seemed to be mostly bothered by the notion that people would know they had fainted, rather than any possible medical problem, if that kind of connection makes any sense - the notion that we must be sturdily self-sufficient and in control at all times.

Of course, given some peoples' lives, and I would hazard Alan might qualify here, such a mindset might make perfect sense and might even be the only (psychologically) safe way to live. And if whatever is dragging you around could potential hurt yourself or others, then maybe self-loathing is what you feel when you get to the point where all you can do is warn others.

I do identify more with Alan's current, or more-current feelings about the song than the strained anguish in his voice during the song, though. To the extent that anything drags me around, it's not more strange or outsized or dangerous than my whims or emotions - I'd love to the kind of laconic person who embodies much of our culture's notion of cool, or a particular kind of cool, but I'm too talkative, intense, high-strung, verging-on-manic or whatever you want to call it (outgoing and funny is what my friends say, when they're feeling nice). I did used to be more self-conscious about my demeanour when I was younger (albeit not that much), and now that I'm an adult (27: the year Ian feels comfortable thinking of himself as an adult) I've begun, as I hope most people do, to feel less like I need to make an effort to change my personality and more like I should just accept who I am and, you know, enjoy that.

But age also makes you less likely to blurt out these things (at least when you're not drunk); when I do feel like I've talked too much or accidentally dominated a conversation or what have you, I no longer feel the need to apologize a bunch or fret to friends over whether so and so thought I was a huge geek or what have you. None of this is stuff that I think about; but as Alan says, you feel less of a need (or maybe less of an urge) to be this obvious and angsty about it, and I think (and hope) that's partly a result of feeling more at home in your own skin.

"Drag," the song, is pretty forgettable. There's some nice bass work, Mimi's dispassionate backing vocals on the 'chorus' (when they sing "drag me around" basically) are kind of interesting, and it's basically interchangeable with most of the other deep cuts on I Could Live in Hope. If I didn't have Alan's note about the song, I doubt I could have said much more than a paragraph about it.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Born By the Wires

studies show that people who live under major power lines become "addicted" to them - Alan

Hmm, I've been trying to do one a week, but I guess one every two weeks is more realistic right now, sorry! Still, we forge ahead, etc.

I am still adjusting to having 80 gigs(!) to play with on my iPod, and so have only recently started throwing on mixes in addition to albums (I generally prefer to listen to the former). The last one I made isn't much of a mix; it's only four tracks long. And it's not really for listening, it's for falling asleep to; SIANspheric's "Where the Planets Revolve, I Wish I Was There," an old | head | phone | over | tone | track (whatever happened to those guys?), Yo La Tengo's "Night Falls on Hoboken," and a track readers of this blog might recognize.

If you read, or re-read, that take on "Do You Know How to Waltz?" you might notice that I make a mistake, mainly because I'd forgotten about the existence of the Songs For a Dead Pilot EP; isn't the longest in the band's discography by 'three or four minutes,' it's only 1:12 longer than "Born By the Wires." And it was an unexpected delight when I did get my hands on the EP to discover that Low already had one more epic in them than I'd remembered to count.

But I wouldn't try to fall asleep to it. And not just because of that unsettling, unsettled ending (quasi-random guitar twangs, the slow dying fall of restless rustling in the studio - a whimper, not a bang for sure), or even one of Alan's most discomfiting vocal performances to date, his feral whimper curled up even higher in the register, making me glad I can neither decipher his voice myself nor find translations online. Alan says they did it in one take - didn't know what we were going to end up with, and that seems fair - what they got was maybe the least welcoming thirteen minutes of all of Low's body of work, mostly just silence and the occasional thrum of a wiry guitar note, left to echo away until just before they hit it again. People who want their music to have thrills, melody, personality, maybe even in some sense even just content will likely want to skip to the next track, but to confirmed fans of minimalism it's very well managed, and once the thrums stop at eleven minutes the instrumental muttering of the rest of the track is actually kind of foreboding.

That they placed the results in the middle of the EP, before the even more implosive "Landlord" (with only "Be There," more on which later, in between) shows an admirable degree of perversity, and should also clue you in that Songs For a Dead Pilot is their starkest, most spectral release. Which is why I love it, of course, but also why it takes a degree of patience their other work doesn't, really; if all they did was this, I'm not sure I'd be as big a fan (this is an EP, after all, where the big pop moment is freakin' "Condescend"), but the contrast between this and, say, Secret Name, and certainly something like The Great Destroyer is compelling. You could argue something like Drums and Guns is in a sense in this lineage of refusal to compromise their sound, but it possesses a lot more melody and even openness to listeners than "Born By the Wires"' chilly terror or the EP as a whole.

One wonders whether they'll ever be this insular again, or even if one wants them to; but it's good to have a document of it in any case.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Always Fade

So after a friend and I made ourselves sick by eating too much sushi tonight, I came home and I listened to some Underworld. Partly because I've been listening to a lot of Underworld recently, and partly because the band's genius mix of motorik style propulsion, occasionally soothing textures and Karl Hyde's heart-on-sleeve stream of consciousness seemed fitting to my bodily state after I awoke from my postprandial nap/coma and staggered home.

A little later, my head cleared a bit, and I sat down to finally make the TMW,TMW update I've been promising myself I'd do for, err, weeks. But I was still unsettled (I'm not sure I'm going to want to or be able to have breakfast before work tomorrow), logy, and while Underworld had been soothing (Second Toughest in the Infants - greatest "techno" LP ever?), I wanted something more jarring, more fitting to my mood. But given all that Underworld I'd been playing, I also wanted something a bit more propulsive than most Low tracks.

Of all the weird drum tracks on Drums and Guns, "Always Fade" is probably my favourite. It sounds a bit like a combination of some sort of drum machine and sampled/chopped/looped playing (Mimi's) and it semi-coheres into a rattling, syncopated, but definitely forward-moving loop, kind of like a metal barrel filled with stones rolling down a street (but less aggravating). Between verses the drum loop picks up complexity to fill in the track. The bass that backstops the drums (there's no guitar, as far as I can tell) is still patient and measured, if a bit more walking-paced than normal, and aside from an insistent shaker that ducks in and out of the track, that's all there is to "Always Fade" aside from Alan and Mimi's voices in calm unison.

Described, it sounds unspeakably radical for Low, like something you'd expect from a radically different band. But on record... it sounds like Low. Like a Low that is now comfortable with experimenting, expanding the borders of their song, but Alan and Mimi aren't exactly yelling or hurrying, and the lyrics are certain in keeping with their preoccupations:

Come clean, and off with your head
The streams of bright rosy red
Your heart will do the rest
And you'll always fade
You'll always fade
Someday you'll change
But you'll always fade

Cut free, the weight on your neck
The screams, the clutching of breast
So sorry about the mess
But you'll always fade
You'll always fade
Someday you'll change
But you'll always fade

It's actually pretty nice compared to most of Drums and Guns; the beheading imagery is grotesque, but no more so than "Embrace", and that was off of their 'happy' album, or at least the one people have seemed to find comforting. I mean, Alan and Mimi even play that sardonic little "sorry about the mess" line pretty straight. It's a song about the necessity of mortality and about accepting that, themes that are dear to my heart, and if they choose an exceptionally vivid way to get your attention (that "your heart will do the rest" line!), then so much the better. The extended (for Drums and Guns) instrumental coda is a nice touch, too, letting the listener revel in that weirdly compelling loop and Matt Livingston's perfectly placed bass notes for a bit longer. This is probably the track from Drums and Guns I'd most like to hear live that I haven't already, and that's only partly because I'm curious as to how they'd pull it off.

Sunday, June 15, 2008


Tension and release. It's all about tension and release.

Except in my memory "Embrace" is all tension and no release; maybe it's the lines "Pushing my body to get that embrace" and then "Crushing your skull with my warming embrace," but as the kick drum pounds away softly in the background, it feels to me like something slowly tightening in, sealing off all escape. There's a little bit of guitar noise and a lovely violin, but mostly (for most of "Embrace") you're just in a room with Mimi. She's beautiful, but she's a little scary, maybe moreso than on any other Low track. "It won't last, hold on fast" she tells you. Brace yourself.

If it ended there, at 3:20 or so, "Embrace" might be more evocative of a given (stifling) mood, and I might even listen to it more outside of its parent album, I don't know. But at 3:20, the drums pick up, Alan starts strumming a bit more determinedly, the violin pitches up into a soaring keen, and Mimi gives her singing a bit of stick: She sounds stressed, although her voice sounds fine. She sings with a heat that she usually doesn't bring to songs, really belting it out. It only lasts for forty seconds or so, but it's the part of a Low song I could most imagine as horror movie:

I fell down the stairs
I wished I were dead
You ran for the light
He handed me your head

And then we're back to the calm, the slow doom of the drum, the occasional guitar note. As with so many Low songs, if you loop this one beginning and end merge smoothly into an endless, potentially unending vista; but there's an irruption in the middle. "It won't last - hold on fast."

(NB. Alan says, "another one people thought was so violent, with all the head-crushing and stuff, but it's really quite intimate and personal." Which it is, but from the outside plenty of intimate and personal things become vaguely terrifying - one of the great insights of horror literature, cinema, etc.)

Friday, May 30, 2008


Ha, I am going to manage two posts in May! I think one of the reasons for my relatively slow posting rate these days is I'll think, a week after a post, "hmm, I should update TMW,TMW again." And then some part of my mind counts remembering I need to post as having checked that particular thing off of my to-do list... and then a few weeks later I go "oh crap, I never wrote that up, did I?" So apologies for that. We are still going, we will still be finishing off Low's discography, and the RSS feed is probably your feed.

Enough about that. I don't know about you guys, but I'm a pretty big fan of both Joy Division and Wire, and already was when I first picked up Things We Lost in the Fire on that fateful day long ago. I certainly was listening to Closer and 154 a lot when I picked up Long Division. But I was still surprised that Alan says that "Turn" is an example of "more wire and joy division influence." I guess listening to it now, I can hear it; until two minutes in, all you can hear is the freeze-frame stomp of Alan and Zak and Mimi's cymbals softly pounding away in 4/4 unison, Mimi occasionally hitting the kick for emphasis. It does sound a bit like Joy Division, or rather it feels a bit like Joy Division on record: stark, claustrophobic, etc. It also reminds me a bit of Wire, not in the "Ex Lion Tamer"/"Outdoor Miner" vein, but more the beginning of "Mercy" or "Heartbeat" or even a blunter take on something like "Used To." Twice the track blooms into something stranger, the track suddenly dialing up the intensity and noise even though nothing is happening other than Alan repeating "to turn me in" and his guitar playing switches to the a more standard early Low sound. It's a striking effect, and especially at the end of the song works fantastically well.

The lyrics are definitely more in the Joy Division school of portentous vagueness, although they outdo even Ian Curtis in those stakes; aside from some repeition, all we get is

I never thought you took me seriously
I never thought you'd be the one to turn me in

I thought you saw me on the roof
I didn't think you'd be the one to turn me in

So naturally, at first this song made me think of Alan's narrator talking on a phone on one side of a plexiglass barrier, prison guards standing by in case he tries anything. But Alan says it's a "pitiful relationship song. told kramer to make it cold." Cold it is, but relationship song? I guess songwriters often abstract outwards from the real messy details of life to get something more figurative, but listen to the guitar creep up to a louder register as Alan drones "to turn me innnnn," and tell me you don't think there's murder happening here.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008


first attempt at strings, the pop tradition. the baby sounds are from one of the cello players' daughter. the timing was so perfect we had to leave it in.

They certainly do like baby sounds, eh? When I read the above in the old song backgrounds page, I didn't remember them at all, but sure enough if you listen (instead of hearing it in your head; as the Radio Lab show on earworms noted, what you hear in your mind is never the actual song...) at the end just as they wind down some tiny person wakes up, makes a kind of cough/gurgle/cry. It does seem kind of fitting, but not to this song specifically; just to songs ending, things needing to be attended to, and so on.

Hearing "Condescend" (and indeed, the rest of the EP) later than most of the albums, I'm not struck by the strings the way a Low fan of the time would have been; the song starts out with some close mic'ed acoustic guitar (almost two slow to be called a strum), and just as the brushes start on the drums (I'm not sure if there's any bass on the track), these cellos come in. They anticipate, shadow, and prolong the brief vocal melody that Mimi sings in the middle of the track. It's easily the loveliest and most conventional song on the EP (although, depending on your standards, I guess the snowbound original version of "Will the Night" rivals it on the former point).

It still sounds like a brief, slight acoustic interlude from a 'normal' band melted and stretched like taffy until it is neither brief or slight any more; the lyrics remain about the same length as in our figurative source, but are more painfully oblique than most songs this pretty would deign to include:

To a point
You will fail
So I'll condescend

Without doubt
You will fail
Then I'll condescend

At a point
I will fail
Still I condescend

That's not quite the whole thing (later Mimi will reiterate the first verse and cycle through all the permutations of "___ I'll condescend"), but it's the important bits. She sings it with a little less spirit than normal, dropping syllables in time with the downbeat and the decline of the cellos; for much of its length "Condescend" is instrumental and lovely, but when Mimi sings it gets a bit starker, and a whole lot more airless. It's a difficult trick to pull off (especially with such a paucity of lyrical content to hold on to), and one that might be of questionable value to some listeners, but I'm always happy to succumb to it.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

La La La Song

So a combination of last minute thesis scrambling (it's handed in now, I just have to pick up the bound copies once they email me and then go graduate), laziness in the wake of said last minute scrambling (this is the first time I've done nothing without guilt in a few years) and that Low documentary I posted about have left me a little unsure what to cover next, and when to do it. The time is now, obviously, but aside from knowing I wanted to tackle something off of Trust, I wasn't sure what.

"La La La Song" is, from title on down, relatively unprepossessing. Nestled away in the run of three short, relatively poppy songs at the end of the album between "John Prine" and "Shots & Ladders," it's even less immediately striking than "Little Argument With Myself" and "Point of Disgust." It starts with something that has historically been relatively rare in Low songs, an acoustic guitar, and Alan and Mimi sing like they're round a campfire. Alan's voice is a little drained, even when he's singing "Had your way with an unsuspecting public" to whoever he's addressing; he sounds tired and benevolent and maybe a little apathetic. There are handclaps in the background.

Between each verse the two lean away from the microphones and sings "la la la"s as an electric guitar cycles in the background, below the acoustic. The whole thing feels like a respite, a pause between more vigorous outings, and after watching You Might Need a Murderer (which, I have been told, will be released in the US on Touch & Go) I need one of those myself. Not that the lyrics are wholly innocuous:

I have learned all your secrets, so familiar
I know where you lay your head
Fear of god* and a disappointing father
Holds the hand around your neck

La la la ...

Sometimes I could just choke myself with laughter
Sometimes everything's so true
So when you come down from your death-defying labours
I'll still be in love with you

La la la ...

*('god' is left uncapitalized on Low's site, although I'd hesitate to assign too much importance to that)

There's a bit of a turn in Alan's voice at that 'laughter,' but the whole verse is still put across with this calm beneficence that is found virtually nowhere else on Trust (even "In the Drugs" is more fraught, albeit also more comforting). During the last set of "la la la"s Mimi starts thwacking away at her kick drum every so often, but other than that this is a remarkably even-toned latter day Low song. If I was trying chop down Trust into something shorter (remarkably for me, not something I'm interested in doing), this wouldn't be one I'd keep, but I'm glad it's out there. A low of the weight in the song is put on that weightless chorus, which especially with Mimi's later drum hits aches towards a kind of relief and profundity that rest of the song doesn't really even look at.

But really, my own high standards for the band notwithstanding, can't they have album tracks that are just good songs? Does everything have to fit into some sort of scheme in my head that 'explains' the band? I like "La La La Song" and the part that tends to run through my head when I think of it is that sweet "So when you come down from your death-defying labours / I'll still be in love with you" part, which despite the rest of the chorus I can't help thinking of as directed at each other. It's a nice song, with a bit of the tension/weirdness that I love about Low creeping in around the edges. Just because I'm still wrestling with what I think of what was in that documentary doesn't mean I can't enjoy songs like this one in a pretty uncomplicated way.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Fragments were so precious

I've been a bit busy, both with preparing for my defence and also with carousing (seeing as how the thesis is actually, you know, written), but I want to get to another entry soon; today, however, I have a number of things to write for PopMatters. My friend Erik sent me something to tide you over in the meantime, however; a Dutch TV special on Low, You may need a murderer (link is on the right, look for the word 'Low').

It's extremely well done and very interesting (and except for the intro, it's in English, with Dutch subtitles). In fact, anyone who likes Low enough to be reading this will find it's essential viewing. It's, uh, it's pretty harrowing in parts, to be honest, albeit in a very quiet, internal way. And it casts all sorts of interesting light onto various aspects of Low's music; after Alan talks about the levels of alcoholism "and the products thereof" in the area he and Mimi grew up in, hearing him sing a solo acoustic version of "Violent Past" on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere, Minnesota makes me think about the song very differently than I used to. Or actually seeing Mimi and Alan sitting there (in their home?), singing "I Started a Joke." Or the way Mimi looks at Alan as they sing "Little Argument With Myself" in their backyard. Or most stunningly when the filmmaker collapses the live and studio versions of "Murderer."

If this is ever available on DVD, or as past of some future set that corresponds with A Lifetime of Temporary Relief, maybe, I will be purchasing it immediately. Kudos to David Kleijwegt for his fine work.

(Later edit: You may need a murderer is indeed available on DVD now, and I did purchase it as soon as I could.)

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Everybody's Song

Interviewer: "How would you describe The Great Destroyer?"

Alan Sparhawk: "The new album is desperate. No. It's bitter... I'm tired of hiding it. Life is too short. If something is ripping you apart, you've got to let it out. You've got to let yourself say it and not feel like everybody is going to look at you like you're uncool because you fall down and start screaming about something that doesn't make any sense."

If there has been a more thrilling and surprising first-listen moment in Low's discography than that opening feebacksquealguitarrise of "Everybody's Song," I'm forgetting it. That's kind of what I got caught up with the first few times I listened to the album - the joy in noise coursing through the track, Alan and Mimi wailing out "nobody does it better!" over a track that sounded like "Canada" set free. But of course

Every day they torture us they torture us they torture us
And say nothing stays together

Breaking everybody's heart
Taking everyone apart
Breaking everybody's heart
Singing everybody's song

I personally think Low's strongest work has only really come once Alan decided to just let it all out, but that doesn't mean I'm going to make the last few records sound like uncomplicated fun times. "Everybody's Song" is thrilling because it's so vital, so alive, but it's alive with anger and frustration and pain (if there is a more queasily undercutting moment in Low's catalog than Alan's later question over squealing feedback, "Father why did I become / The angry son / The angry one," then again I'm forgetting it). There are demons here. You can't even say they're being exorcised, not really.

But it's got one of my favourite Mimi drum beats ever (that deadened clang on every second beat, the constant ride cymbal - it's awesome), the way the arrangement flows and shifts throughout the verses, the overdriven chorus - this is still probably Low's most successful full on rock song. At the time it was also surprising; earlier Low albums had been dark and disquieting, but never this raging. And we're not talking about the band's sound.

[Interview segment courtesy of PopMatters]

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Mom Says

it's, um, about my mother. i lost a helium balloon. it was blue. mom said the astronauts would get it for me.

Aww, that sounds nice, doesn't it? Kind of sweet. Right up there with Calvin's dad telling him that the wind is just trees sneezing.

And "Mom Says," despite being on the coldest album Low have ever released (although not the darkest, that's Trust, or the angriest, that being Drums and Guns, or the sweetest, Things We Lost in the Fire, or...) and showing every sign of it, does start out kind of sweetly. He says "but I don't know," but it's the kind of thing little kids say, right? You can almost picture little Alan standing there, brow furrowed, trying to figure out if his mom is funnin' him.

The same with the next verse; this time mom says that "the car won't make it to the lake," but Alan is still doubtful (Mimi's vocals on this one are a backing murmur that is both lovely and also somehow supportive, like she's helping Alan tell his story rather than telling one of her own - unlike some Low songs, this is definitely two voices). This sounds to me like a parent telling the kid they can't do something the kid wants to do. Maybe there are other reasons and the car thing is a pretext, or maybe they're poor and the car is old. Either way, it's a little sad.

The next verse is a bit more intense:

Mom says
A farm's the best place to call home
But I don't know
I don't know
I don't know
Don't know
I don't know

I didn't grow up on a farm, but I did grow up in a smallish rural town. I know how he feels. And I know how it feels to get to the point in your life when you start questioning your parent's preferences, not even because you don't like them particularly, but just because they're your parents' and they've always been there (in a sense). He's not rejecting the idea (and as far as I know Alan and Mimi still call Duluth home, a city significantly smaller than Guelph), he's just doubting. The prolonged section where he meditates on the phrase "I don't know" also demonstrates something that The Curtain Hits the Cast-era Low does extraordinarily well: dwelling in a moment, going over it until we're not sure what it means any more. It's soothing and disorienting.

So there you go; another five minutes and change, a guitar part where it feels like you can hear every single not distinctively, bass and drums barely in the background, a slightly less cryptic narrative than usual, some nice singing. It'd be misleading to say that "Mom Says" is one of my least favourite songs on the album, although it is; but I'm one of those critics who doesn't necessarily believe that the best albums are the ones where you love every single song. I believe in ebb and flow and 'filler' that, while not as good as some of its companions and certainly nothing you'd bother listening to in isolation, is still satisfying and that makes sense in the context of the album. And that's what "Mom Says" is to me.

Until, just at the end, the instruments dropping out, Alan, alone, says

mom says
we ruined her body

Oh. Well, then.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Will the Night

The original recorded version of "Will the Night," as much as I love it, seems painfully perverse to anyone (and this is going to include almost everybody who wasn't a Low fan back in 1997) who has heard the much more available and popular version on Secret Name. The original was, in Alan's words, "recorded on a mini-cassette recorder with us hovering over, then played back through a lot of reverb." The effect, more than any other song in Low's discography, is to make "Will the Night" sound like something you'd find on an old cassette tape in an abandoned, possibly haunted house. Only instead of creepy, it's kind of wholesome and comforting - if there are ghosts, you could picture them using their poltergeist powers to pull out a chair for you to sit in when you're having a hard day, not tossing shit across the room.

The video they made for it seems to acknowledge that feeling, and if you're only familiar with the later take on "Will the Night" (or even if you've never heard either) you really should watch it; this song, more than any other, represents the terminal point of Low's ambition to play as softly and slowly as possible (although I would argue that such an ambition is a smaller part of their music than conventional accounts suggest), and it's kind of bracing to experience it.

I am an acknowledged latecomer to Low's music, so by the first time I heard the Songs For a Dead Pilot version (where, and I want to emphasize this, it leads off the EP, which is pretty bold) I already had the later one memorized. But I don't know how easy it would be to tell what they're singing if you didn't already know it. The lyrics are the same as the later version (as far as I can tell), which makes "Will the Night" one of the few unambiguous Low songs:

Will the night
Last forever?
By my side
Cause tonight, together
Would be divine
But once it's gone
Your face to hide
Against the sun
The moon
Am I
On the other side
So blind
So long

The EP version has Alan and Mimi singing this (sounding particularly gorgeous on the momentary, soaring pause during "On the other side"), with maybe a bit of guitar being played. They're been mixed very, very low, so between the reverb and room sound and everything else it sounds like they're maybe down the hall from you. It's one of the few clear love songs in Low's repertoire, and it's fitting that they sound like they're singing it to one another, far away from everything that doesn't matter. If that was all we had of "Will the Night," it'd be a particularly poignant oddity in Low's work, a lovely song given a remarkable treatment. But I think it'd also be a little frustrating - the EP version is beautiful, and I'm glad they tried it that way (Alan's contention that "sometimes i think we should do a whole record this way" is actually one I kind of wished they had followed up on), but even in such a muted form you can tell the melody of the song is one for the ages. It's so good, and it's one of their favourite songs (as Alan has said more than once), that it would be baffling and frustrating if such an obscure, completists-only fate was all the band had in store for "Will the Night."

Thankfully, a few years later Low decided that "a coherent version" of the song was warranted, and it became the anchor of Secret Name. Located between "Days Of..." and "Home" (both of which have been previously written up under this tag), it takes on a disproportionate weight of the album despite being a slim 2:23. Alan takes lead this time, although Mimi does back him up, with vocals and with a brief kettle drum surge to give the latter part of the song some heft. Other than that, the track is all strings; Alan starts singing "Will the night..." and instead of the expected guitar a string quartet (I think) starts up. I love strings, so I may be biased, but this is a perfect setting for the song. Despite its lack of a chorus or really any real structure the sentiment and melody of the song feel kind of like throwbacks to a more refined and romantic age of popular music (I couldn't really picture Sinatra doing it, but Alan sells the song short when he jokes "maybe barbara streisand will cover it some day").

It would have been good with guitar, or even just vocals, but those perfectly calibrated strings wrapping around Alan's voice (as Mimi's voice does) and that one, brief surge of bass drums - the first time I heard it, "Will the Night" in its 'coherent' form felt like a classic, and I haven't wavered from that belief since. Its lyrics speak movingly towards both the feeling we have when we're in love and the bittersweet certainty that something - time, space, responsibilities, life, etc - will prevent us from just ignoring the world in favour of our Other. But it's not a disappointed song; that lament of how we're "so blind" on the other side isn't despairing, and the closing shift from "goodbye" to "goodnight" acknowledges that they'll see each other soon. And implicit I think in "Will the Night" is that the fact that you can't just wall the two of you away from the world all the time is probably for the best, and makes the time you have together that much sweeter. It's a very, very romantic song, which makes the discussion about in the documentary included in A Lifetime of Temporary Relief all the funnier (I won't spoil it for those who haven't seen it). On the short list of songs I would want to have for a first dance at my wedding should I ever get married, there are not one but two Low songs. The other, and the one that's both more appropriate and slightly (I think) more likely to be approved by someone else is "Closer," but some small part of me thinks of the occasion whenever "Will the Night" - either version - plays.

Saturday, March 1, 2008


One of the relatively few demos included on the A Lifetime of Temporary Relief boxset is a gorgeous, ten minute rendition of "Lullaby," arguably the centrepiece of Low's debut I Could Live in Hope. At first I was thinking that the two versions weren't that different; there's a thick, lovely coating of static and room noise present on the demo (my fondness for such things probably explains a lot of a why I like an act like Burial), one that never obscures the music, but other than that I was thinking the album version could just be the demo polished up in a studio. The studio version trims maybe fifteen seconds from the running time, but the vast majority of both songs is given over to simple, slow instrumental interplay. Alan's guitar sounds kind of like the child of Robert Smith and Vini Reilly's trapped in molasses, Mimi's brushed snare and cymbals do everything they can to avoid propulsion and stick to resting pulse levels, and John Nichols' bass subtly underlays Alan's guitar, given the track its melody while Alan erects surprisingly fragile sounding webs of echo and delay. It's remarkably assured and beautiful for a band that started playing like this as a joke, as a reaction to a scene they found too homogeneous.

It's also, as the track reaches the seven minute mark or so, not as slow as you might think. Maybe it's just the rest of the music on the album or even the measured pace of "Lullaby" at its start, but it feels like they're going at a fair clip by the end. It's kind of thrilling, even, and different from later Low epics in that there's not a speck of guitar distortion or solid drum thump to be found. Even on that fuzz-choked demo the actual guitar remains wavering and clean.

I was all set to just talk about guitars and the slight distinction between album and demo versions and leave it at that, but I happened to snag my attention on something that Alan has to say about "Lullaby" that kind of transformed how I think of the song. He says that it was "a reflection of our shoegazer fandom at the time," which is interesting in and of itself; shoegazer is not exactly what I think of when the guitar sounds like this, although certainly in effect it's not a million miles away from late period Slowdive. It's his second claim that stopped me, though: "but i think mim's vocal is what makes it."

For a nearly ten-minute song, there's an almost funny paucity of lyrics for "Lullaby." Right at the beginning Mimi sings

Cross over and turn
Feel the spot don't let it burn
We all want we all yearn
Be soft don't be stern

Was not supposed to make you cry
I sang the words I meant
I sang

and then that's it. We're into the slow plunge of John's bass, the stiff stride of Mimi's drums and Alan's phantasmagoric guitar for the rest of the track. They're good lyrics and all, but I hadn't really paid much attention; so I went back and did so.

The first interesting thing is that on the demo they're over by about two minutes in, leaving eight minutes of instrumental. On the studio recording by the time they're done (between coming in a bit later and being more slowly sung) there's only seven minutes remaining, which actually does alter the feel of the song considerably (although I had to stop listening to the two versions looped on repeat to tell). Both sets of vocals are heavily echoed, but while paying attention to timing I noticed something about the album version I had never consciously noted before: As Mimi doesn't start drumming until after she stops singing, and as John and Alan restrain themselves to lurking in the background, something very interesting happens. Not only are Mimi's vocals echoed, but the echo remains, building slowly, until during the second 'verse' they take up a fair bit of what you can actually hear. It's fairly subtly done, but if you're paying close attention to that part of the track it's suddenly one of the more beautiful things the band has ever done (as well as showing the roots, even this early, of some of what they'd eventually be doing with voice on Drums and Guns and so on). I love the prolonged coda of "Lullaby" a lot, and I certainly don't begrudge them keeping this part short. But my close listening today has kind of made me wish there was either a single edit or even just a lengthier vocal version of "Lullaby" out there - I could listen to those delayed, dying falls of "sang, sang, sang, sang..." all day.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

From Your Place on Sunset

From your place on Sunset
The hills are on fire...

Thanks to the ever-highly esteemed Robert Inverarity (one of something like 5 oeuvrebloggers still going, if I can count myself), we have a genuine rarity in this day and age: A non-new Low song I not only hadn't heard before today, but had never even heard of. How does a band do that now, keep some material only to the lucky and obsessed?

Well, you release a vinyl-only EP in 2003 (this, which I also hadn't heard of), limit it to 2000 copies and do not put it on the internet. That latter part is crucial. In fact, don't even mention it in the "Single" and "EP" sections of the discography kept on your band's site. Somehow copies of the EP version of "Murderer" (which I will of course talk about when I get to that song) and b-side "From Your Place on Sunset" made their way to me, although I still haven't heard the alternate version of "Silver Rider" (in my imagination, it bears a relation to the original similar to the "20 Below Mix" of "Joan of Arc"). Robert's connection of this track to Sunset Boulevard is pretty genius, but I definitely don't hear any explicit shout-outs to Norma Desmond et al - so either he knows something I don't, or he's just being clever or (most likely) I'm still too wrapped up in the sound of the song to begin really parsing the lyrics. This is why I rely on Low's site and songmeanings.com (as imperfect as it is) for lyrics; seeing them in front of me lets me focus on them in ways that hearing them sometimes precludes.

I'm not exactly angry that the band kept this one hidden, though - it's good-not-great, not a buried treasure to the extent that, say, Mogwai's "Hugh Dallas" is (seriously, if you're a fan of the latter band and you haven't heard that track, you may want to email me). It feels kind of halfway between Trust and The Great Destroyer to me, and fittingly so given the chronology; not as obviously studio-made as the former, with a guitar and room tone distinctly close to "Silver Rider" or "On the Edge Of," but a darkness and length more in keeping with Trust. For more of the eight minutes here we get what could be a slowed down, chorus-less relative to "Broadway (So Many People)," but the last two minutes mature into a cloud of guitar distortion as Alan and Mimi intone "la la la la" over and over, louder and louder.

As you might guess if you've been reading this site even if you're not a fan of Low, none of this is exactly far from much of the band's work, nor is the tense feeling of impending apocalypse present from the very first lines, quoted above. What sets "From Your Place on Sunset" apart isn't much; an unexpectedly firm sense of place thanks to the title (and Los Angeles is a tantalizingly unusual location for these guys - even "California" is clearly a Minnesota song), its obscurity and rarity, and an unusually well executed end-game conflagration. Not that the band usually bobbles that sort of thing, but even on third or fourth listen the suddenness of onset and intensity of sound kind of set me back. I'd love to hear them essay this live, and should they get to the point where another Lifetime of Temporary Relief is warranted this will be a nice surprise for fans, but I wouldn't go hunting on eBay for it.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


Whoof. Well, that took a little longer than expected! Still, at least one version of the thesis is done and dusted and it's time to get back in the saddle here. Apologies again - profuse apologies - for the delay.

In my downtime, one of the things that dictated the shape of a lot of my listening was my ever flowing Unsorted playlist, where tracks I download go to be heard until I decide if I want to keep them. This is naturally enough not exactly full of Low, a band where I own albums and listen to them obsessively. But some stuff did find its way there.

That's thanks to Daytrotter, a site devoted to having musicians come in and play three or four tracks live for free MP3 download. I mentioned Low's session when I wrote about "Breaker," but it's worth noting that these four songs have formed the bulk of my Low listening, the odd playthrough of The Great Destroyer at work aside. They're worth downloading for any Low fans, because unlike a lot of the bands I've sampled via Daytrotter, these are markedly different versions (I originally typed in "distant," which I guess works too).

Take "Sandinista." When I first heard Drums and Guns, it seemed maybe a bit too slight: far away echo, quasi-martial drums, Alan and Mimi singing directly into your ear:

Where would you go if the gun fell in your hands?
Home to the kids, or to sympathetic friends?
Oh sandinista
Oh sandinista
Oh sandinista, take my side

I have no idea what political statement if any they're trying to make here; I know the word sandinista has certain connotations in America that are pretty heavy, all told. That strangely pulled-up drum beat and the high lonesome sound that reminds me of watching a plane land from far away are pretty much the whole track, aside from a brief synthesized rumble right at the end. Two short verses, characteristically (for this album) strident vocals from Alan - I wasn't sure what I thought of it, really.

I certainly wouldn't want it to be a single, but after listening to it more I think it works fine on the album, a short astringent between the lusher "Dragonfly" and "Always Fade" (two of the longer tracks on the album, to boot). Not something I'd be too excited to see live, but a good solid album track that provides an important role there.

Except that the live version (which again, you can download above) is five minutes long instead of 2:23. And the first thing you can hear is Alan's guitar, again resonating with those bits of me that grew up listening to my Dad's Neil Young and Crazy Horse records. You get nearly two full minutes that sound like Alan is back in Dirty Three-collaborating mode again, Matt's bass just barely shading the proceedings. When Mimi starts drumming (much slower than the album version, and not as complex) and they start singing, they both sound calmer, less impassioned. Alan may lunge at the "deep" that starts the second verse, but in general this is more a hymn of regret and mourning ("fresh with the blood of your father so holy") than the recorded version's tense appraisal of realpolitik and the cost of violence.

The last 47 seconds, meanwhile, never quite lift off into full cataclysm, but they do show that Alan's cover of "Eruption" by Van Halen wasn't a joke (although this is much slower, of course). I guess they could have made the whole record like this, and really become a guitar band after The Great Destroyer, but while the live version of "Sandinista" makes me wonder what if briefly, ultimately I'm glad they didn't. Or that they at least produced Drums and Guns first.