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 (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.