and I can hear 'em


Monday, October 27, 2008

Heartbeat

Ye gods, it's been a while. Sorry. You sort of get out of the habit of doing these, and then.... come to think of it, this time of year seems to have been bad for my colleagues, some of whom are still plugging away and whose work I enjoy. There is one notable exception in terms of productivity: Matthew Perpetua's excellent Pop Songs 07-08 (lest we forget, the R.E.M. blog that got this whole thing rolling) has recently been completed for the moment, and in the most spectacular fashion imaginable: Michael Stipe graciously agreed to answer questions (including one of mine). So kudos and thanks again to Matthew.

As for here... well, I always say I intend to be better about posting, and it's true, but I certainly don't know what's going to happen. Except to say that as long as I'm still around, Too Many Words, Too Many Words will continue to plug away at the work of Low until I'm damn well finished.

And thus we come to today's song. I saw Wire live recently, although they didn't play "Heartbeat." I actually upgraded at the show - thanks to some birthday money, I bought the 1977-1979 box that covers their three albums from that span plus some live material. Between the rate at the show and the amount I got for selling Pink Flag, Chairs Missing and 154 (my favourite) at work, it was very reasonable. So I've certainly been thinking about Wire a fair amount recently, and it seemed sensible to cover Low's Wire, err, cover here.

Except when I actually compared the songs side by side, I started wondering whether we should really be calling it a 'cover.' The Wire version sounds like this:



If a bit more subdued on the album itself. Also, the album version, which I would have assumed was the only one Low would have heard by the time they set out to record their version of it, doesn't have any of the scraping guitar noise that's present near the end of the live version of the song here. Low's take was recorded at four in morning in early 1994 by friends in the band Eggs at American University for a possible b-side to "Violence" (neither song fit on the proposed 7", sadly). It then sat unmastered until 2004 when it was polished up for Low's box set. Any band willing to tackle both Wire and Joy Division (and able to give credible takes on both) is well worth respecting, but understandably "Heartbeat" has some rough edges.

I'm not sure whether it was a deliberate decision or not (although given the hour and the possible spontaneity of the recording session, I suspect the latter), but Mimi doesn't sing the lyrics to "Heartbeat" as Colin Newman did. The version on Chairs Missing and the above video goes:

I feel icy
I feel cold
I feel old
Is there something there behind me?
I'm sublime
I'm sublime
I'm sublime

I feel empty
I feel dark
I remark
I am mesmerized
By my own beat
Like a heartbeat
Like a heartbeat
Like a heartbeat
Like a heartbeat
In it's own beat
Like a heartbeat
Like a heartbeat
Like a heartbeat


Low's "Heartbeat" is arguably identifiably the same song (similar, although slower and quiter bass thrum; same melody line; similar lyrical structure), but Mimi sings instead:

I feel old
I feel cold
I'm so blind
Is there something there behind me?
Like a movie

I am mesmerised by my own beat
Like a heartbeat
Like a heartbeat
Like a heartbeat
Like a heartbeat


This is a cover the way you might do it, singing to yourself in the shower. The gist is retained, but the details are very different. The guitar is more granular, the room sound is heavy, and after Mimi stops singing the track dithers for a while before something (an idling vehicle? a faulty washing machine? a deliberate effect?) slowly overwhelms the track in a similar but more total and less abrasive way as the scraping sounds on Wire's live performance of "Heartbeat" above.

This cover retains the spirit well enough, in fact, that until I played them back-to-back to write this entry, I would have assumed that Mimi sings basically the same thing Colin Newman did. He detached melancholy is different from his diffident spitefulness, but both songs are claustrophobic in their inward turn (and both, in fact, seem to implicitly criticize this lack of contact with outward humanity). For all I know, Low's "Heartbeat" is a fluke, brought on by spur of the moment decisions and fatigue, but it feels like the most faithful treatment Wire could have hoped for.