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.