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.


Inverarity said...

I contemplated requesting this one a few days ago. The noise, intimacy, and general ghostliness of the demo pushes it a hair ahead of the studio version for me. (Have I mentioned I love the way each disc of Lifetime works as an album unto itself?)

I will have to listen to both with your rediscovery in mind. Very interesting stuff!

Ian said...

Originally I would have agreed on demo vs. finished version, but I'm curious to hear what you think when you go back and check them out again. I actually don't tend to listen to the box set as discrete discs - I should probably do so a few times, see if I agree.