10 April 2007

low; yo

low have quietly, slowly, gradually (well, you know how they do...) become one of my very favorite bands.

saw them last night, and that really clinched it - made me start to love them and relate to them as people, beyond the already strongly personal affinity i feel for their music.

(even though i'm not a very melancholy person like that might suggest; even though - and despite what i've said in the last post about my generationally-based difficulties accessing mid-90s indie - i didn't even really listen to them until four or five years ago, already almost a decade into their career.)

i saw them before, last year, in the sanctuary of the church in the dead of winter (an apt time for low - now it's not, but the lingering cold was fitting.) but this was better - maybe because i wasn't in the middle of a fight with angela; or because the church basement, though less evocative, is more intimate; or just because of how much i've been loving drums and guns.

they played a lot from it, including key highlights "belarus" (very minimal, with ambient loops and that keening high octave harmony), "dragonfly" (the prettiest one - addiction metaphor), "in silence" (which i hadn't noticed as much until hearing it live, but has been in my head since) and "murderer" (which seems to take the perspective of a religious terrorist, by my reading anyway - closed the set - slightly less intense than the album, actually.) and of course "breaker" - the single, if that means anything - which they did twice, first in the organ-and-handclaps ("you don't all have to do it, but some of you should - it's fun!") version from the album, and then in a more rocked-out and menacing encore.

[also of note - show opened with "cue the strings," lovely lilt from destroyer; first encore. by request, was "violence" - which i recognized but couldn't quite place as the opener from long division - amazing how they can say so much with so little, and then, nicely, by my suggestion and gentle prodding, but then taken up by the crowd in general, the first song of theirs i ever loved, "in the drugs."

there was some amusing - just slightly tense - banter between alan and mimi, about the lighting on his face (she said "it fits you" and he demanded to know what she meant), and later an attempt at a sort of open discussion on any topic of interest to the crowd - alan seemed to be suggesting legalizing marijuana as roundabout semi-solution to the crime problem; compared notes on disillusioned mayors - ended when mimi asked "what about disillusionment and marriage?" but they were in good humor. alan's funnier than you'd think.]

the new album is more anxious and bitter - more political, though obliquely enough that you can't exactly call it that - than anything they've done before. it's most similar to trust in that respect, but even starker and sparer, with a reenvisioned sound palette centered around glacial, quietly menacing drum loops and little snatches of ambient guitar noise. but there are still those ineffable, ethereal harmonies, low's sonic quintessence, all the more haunting and disarming when set in contrast to the foreboding music beneath them. (it's telling that the opener, the devestatingly bleak "pretty people" - devoid of harmonies - is the hardest song to listen to.)

they didn't do "hatchet," the lightest (and most atypical) song on the album, and probably my favorite (this revelatory article/interview calls it a "dance song," which may be going a little far) - i didn't really mind (not sure it would have gained much from the live setting) - but somehow just seeing them gave me a new perspective on its lyrics, which i've been puzzling over. (i guess i'll just post my thoughts there on songmeanings, so read it there if you like.) the beatles and stones references there made me think about yo la tengo (mostly "tom courtenay") (hey, have you seen that video? it's really good.) (actually, this review calls the song "yo la tengo-esque," which i guess it sort of is.) (and come to think of it, "hatchet" is in the title of my fave song from the new ylt album too.)


it's not like i hadn't thought of them in conjunction before (their albums are next to each other on my cd shelf, for one thing), but i'm not sure i'd realized how almost uncannily parallel those two bands are. the obvious: both are trios consisting of married couples - drummer-wife and guitarist/writer-hubby - one jewish, one mormon - with third-wheel bassists (though they originally started as quartets), from and strongly associated with small unlikely cities (hoboken nj and duluth mn.) both have been around for a really long time, have earned a tremendous critical reputation for consistency and quality, with similar but distinctive musical approaches (one more eclectic, the other more minimalist) that have developed and mutated only very gradually throughout their careers, and both have remarkably devoted fans who presumably collect their countless endless eps and ephemera (oddly enough, both have released christmas eps.) they're both noted for being fairly low-key and unassuming, personally as well as musically, and tend to underplay their considerable instrumental chops (the guitarist/de facto frontmen, specifically.)

they both released defining, consensus-pick albums late in their careers - and i can hear the heart beating as one and things we lost in the fire are very likely the first albums i heard by each, though their respective follow-ups (and then nothing turned itself inside-out and trust) were the first that i fully explored, digested, owned, and loved. (i've come to appreciate and eventually care for ichthbao and twlitf too, though for a long time i could only really connect with them as far as their first halves - it's taken patience to make it all the way through to their ultimately crucial, sweet closing tracks.)

picking up used copies as i come across them, i've gradually worked my way through much of their back-catalogs - indeed, i have exactly three earlier lps by each (which still leaves a lot more ylt albums, but only one - the beautifully titled curtain hits the cast - by low.) i actually purchased the three most recent low albums new and full-priced, around the time of their release (there are very few bands for whom that's true) - in ylt's case i got summer sun as a promo, although like the great destroyer, it was something of a critical disappointment which i wholeheartedly embraced (actually to a much greater extent, on both counts.)

there's something of a divergence after that in terms of my personal relationship to the bands. i publicly declared my love for yo la two years ago - as i'm doing now for low - but although i still stand by the things i said there, i've gotten a little distanced from them since. you know how you fall out of love with bands? not just letting your affections gradually wane, but having something diminish them more actively, acutely. it's happened for me most markedly with beck, and also elvis, sad to say - for both personal and musical reasons. not quite saying that's what's up w/ ylt - but there was something symbolic in my walking away, 20 (very enjoyable! so bad decision?) minutes into their p4kfest set, to go watch spoon (who also let me down a little bit - they've got a good shot to make it up though, with their forthcoming.) i was also underwhelmed by their live show in '04 (though i loved it in '02), but the scarier bit is that i've really been kind of turned off by their "return to form" [i am afraid of this album title], which sacrifices the satisfying cohesion of their previous two (unexciting, maybe, but still the only ylt lps i truly love.)

low, meanwhile, like i said, have subtly, gradually revealed themselves to me in the last few years - i've had much less difficulty connecting with their earlier work (i can live in hope, their 1993 debut, is in the running for my favorite), and now that i've caught up with them, i've enjoyed watching their style finally blossom and mutate in more dramatic, overt ways. and, clearly, their newest is far from a disappointment.

not that it's a competition. but i have been thinking in terms of the entertaining stylus "versus" features - which would be appropriate for these two. if i wrote one at this point, i'd obviously give low the edge, which might not be quite fair. (ylt's best shots: more lovable bassist - and better side projects, i'm assuming; possibly better album covers although their last may have screwed them there; better song covers by default, since although low have many lovely ones to their credit ylt are basically the kings and queen of cover songs.)

the thing is, their differences are almost as striking as their similarities, which makes them seem more like negative images of one another than mirrors. it's in their affect. low are somber; restrained; lugubrious; spiritual. yo are playful; direct; ebullient; worldly. both have undeniable beauty - but it's like light and dark; heaven and earth. there's some exaggeration here, of course - there are spaces in both for joy and sorrow, and each may at some point take on the qualities i've ascribed to the either - but in terms of the overwhelming, general quality conveyed by their music, the contrast is unmistakable.

yo la tengo's recent retrospective was titled prisoners of love - arguably a more appropriate title for low (theirs - three discs of rarities rather than a more scattered putative 2cd "best of" plus bonus disc was called a lifetime of temporary relief), but suitable for both. because earth and heaven can be prisons or sanctuaries, it's all in how you view them. it all boils down to love - sacred and profane; as you will - and maybe the distance is not so great.

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