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.