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.


Inverarity said...

I love this song. It's a particularly striking use of the old quasi-harmony. (As often as they use it, it never gets old for me. My poor wife.) Alan's audible grimace throughout the studio version is also notable.

It seems like there's a touch of irony in the way he sings "so holy" - but I don't know why there would be. Live versions don't seem to show this, so maybe it's a quirk of the performance.

It was a highlight of the show I saw last year, but then every song was.

P.S. Excited for the Retribution Gospel Choir album? I am! There's a preorder bonus EP if you preorder at Caldo Verde, too. April can't come soon enough. Alan's side projects are almost bizarrely high-quality - as good in their way of much of the Low catalog, if not better, and that's high praise from me.

Ian said...

'Audible grimace' is a good way to put it, but as you note, it's not present at all live (either when I saw them live or on the Daytrotter stuff), which is actually kind of intriguing. I'm assuming it's a deliberate choice, but what a choice!

I am a bit excited for that, yeah... sadly, having next to no money, I won't be preordering it, but I will be keeping my eyes peeled, and at some point I'll be buying it. I am a little weirded out by the presence of two tracks from Drums and Guns on there, though. And I was thinking of reviewing the Black Eyed Snakes album soon.