Thursday, April 19, 2007

33 1/3 series

I have been reading pieces from the 33 1/3 series over the past couple weeks. It appears that the aim of this series is to devote each book to a single album. The authors range from scholars to musicians, such as Colin Meloy of the Decemberists. There is a decent blog for this series that can be searched for comments and reviews on specific books from the series. I had heard from numerous sources that the series was very hit and miss, but having liked the two that I have read so far, I can't say really. I was in Harvard Square a couple weeks ago and ventured into the Harvard Bookstore to check out which books from the series they had and ended up talking to a fellow there who has reportedly read 42 books so far. I asked him what he recommended and if he had also found the series to be inconsistent, to which he replied that it depended on what I was looking for from the books. Fair enough. These books are only about 150 pages or so each, so I think if you don't expect a major piece of heavily researched work here, you won't be too disappointed. Some of the books are mostly anecdotal, others more researched with interviews, and others still more referential, such as LD Beghtol's field guide to the Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs. So far I have read Ric Menck's book on The Byrds' The Notorious Byrd Brothers and the series' oddball novella by John Niven inspired by The Band's Music from Big Pink.

The piece on The Notorious Byrd Brother was the first of the series that I read and I found it to be a perfect blend of the authors anecdotes, history of the band, history of the making of the album, and a song by song critique of the album. I stayed up late one night finishing the book with my headphones on, reading Menck's commentary on each song and trying to identify aspects of the songs he was pointing out. I had previously thought that the Byrds' Fifth Dimension was their best album, but after really sitting and focusing on listening to the lyrics and the instrumentation more than I had before, I definitely see why this album is so significant. The studio effects produced for this album by Gary Usher are tremendous and, at the time, innovative. I am embarrassed to admit that I had not even noticed that the songs blend seamlessly into one another on this album until I read this book. One last thing, Ric Menck includes commentary on bonus songs that can be found on the most recent CD release of this album. This commentary includes a note about an intense 7 minute recording at the end of the album where you can listen to the band, especially Clarke and Crosby, get into one of the arguments that had been brewing for some time, which eventually led to Crosby leaving the Byrds. I am including this track with this entry, though you will have to skip to about the midway point (~6:41) to hear the Byrds' argument.

In contrast, the next book I read was John Niven's novella, which is the first of its kind in the 33 1/3 series so far. There are plenty of reviews of this story, so I am not going to say much here. (There is talk about making Niven's story into a film. ) I will admit that I would have preferred to read about Music From Big Pink in the same manner that I read about The Notorious Byrd Brothers . That not being the case though, the novella was still informative and, though fabricated, left me feeling more of an intimate connection with the Band through their fictitious drug-dealer than I imagine I would have received through a historically factual account of the Band during the making of their first album. Well, I guess that is a flimsy statement to make, though I nonetheless enjoyed reading John Niven's work. The story felt to me to be less concerned with learning about the Band via the narrator's connections and more about the relationship the narrator had with the music on the album. There are countless snippets of lyrics that continue to conjure memories for me, whether by their apt descriptions of relationships or events in my life or simply from having been the music in the back ground while driving down the road. Certain songs from Music From Big Pink remind me of spending time in New York state amidst a confusing relationship with an old friend who introduced me to the Band at her mother's house out in the country. Other tracks remind me of driving highway 81 along Virginia's Shenandoah mountains years ago alone in my white pickup truck on my way to my home in the North Carolina mountains. At it's heart, I take Niven's story to be about these sort of connections we make with albums.

So, if you're tired of waiting for my half-assed, inconsistent album reviews, I suggest you check out the 33 1/3 series. If you do, write a comment on this entry and let me know what you think of those you've read.

The Byrds - Universal Mind Decoder (Instrumental) [+ argument]

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Drums And Guns (2007)

This is the eighth full-length album by Duluth, MN's soporific Low. I saw them play last Saturday with my wife and brother-in-law. I have seen this band during four of their last five tours and they are well worth seeing live, especially in a theater where you can sit down. I was first introduced to Low through my now long-lost friend Kai Benson. During my first attempt at college back in 1999, Kai and I bonded over coffee, cigarettes, 40's, the sweet, sweet soulful pining of misters Marvin Gaye and Al Green, and such painfully beautiful, minimalist music as Low.

Low is a trio consisting primarily of a Mormon couple, Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker. They have had three bassists since their first album in 1994. The visual pinnacle of this band's minimalism is seeing Mimi Parker standing behind her drum kit on stage: a simple floor tom, snare and cymbal. What I was told about Low when introduced to them was that they emerged onto the music scene when, in Duluth, loud, fast-paced grunge and punk rock dominated the music scene. The creation of Low was a response to this scene. Sometimes referred to as slow-core, Low is indeed quite a contrast to the tempos of grunge and punk rock, but I prefer to label Low as minimalist and harmonic. Lyrically, Low's songs are often poignant and tragically beautiful regardless of whether the content is sweet or dismal. For me, the most charming aspect of this band are the vocal harmonies of Sparhawk and Parker; man, these two have got it. Seeing and hearing these two sing together on a song is devastating. They do have quite a few songs that reference Christian themes, but let this not be a deterant. The members of Low are Christian (well, at least Sparhawk and Parker), but Low is not Christian rock. (They do have a really wonderful Christmas EP though).

I had intentionally not listened to Drums And Guns before the Low concert because I wanted to hear their new music live for the first time. I must say that I was not so pleasantly surprised when I first heard their new songs. Low's previous tour for their album, The Great Destroyer, was the only tour I haven't caught since they released Secret Name in 1999. Once I got home from the concert, I realized that I needed to go back and listen this last effort by Low. As soon as I did, I recalled that when I last listened to The Great Destroyer it didn't speak to me in the same way that Low's earlier work has. I think I had maybe listened to it a couple times when it came out in 2005, but have otherwise not paid any attention to it since. This is relevant to my critique of Drums And Guns because it was on The Great Destroyer that their sound really changed. Low has always had at least one or two faster paced, "heavier" songs on their albums, but The Great Destroyer really marks a shift toward the opposite ratio. Dave Fridmann produced both The Great Destroyer and Guns And Drums, which is quite obvious because these two albums do not sound to the Auricle reminiscent of the rest of Low's catalogue.

Drums And Guns retains the moody yet beautiful, simple sound that I have come to love from Low a bit better than it's predecessor. However, there is more of an inclusion of electronica on this album, which feels out of place for this band. There was a point during the concert when, in between songs, Alan Sparhawk played a looped recording of, presumably, one of his children singing the lines "you make me happy, when skies are gray" from "You Are My Sunshine," which I thought was sweet and lovely; just the sort of thing Low would include in their set.

I want this album to be more of Low's stark indie rock hymnals, but it isn't. It just isn't. It's sad, dark and moody, but not the Low I love. There are a lot of looped samples and, as I mentioned before, electronica that just doesn't feel right. To me, Low sound is definitively sparse and when this sort of ambient accoutrement and rhythmic layering is added, the result is a fuller sound but not, by far, nearly as intimate. And that's what this album lacks for me. It's the intimacy that conjures images in my mind of my future children falling to sleep listening to Low. I mean, this is a band that, at one time, made white pillow cases with mare tranquilitatis (sea of tranquility) embroidered in light blue along the opening.

The lyrics for this album just aren't up to par either. The song "Hatchet" is a real low (no pun intended) point on this album; this song should not have even made it onto the album. Also the song "Dragonfly", which I think instrumentally is one of the better songs on the album, but the lyrics are ridiculous. It seems like Low is regressing back into embarrassingly bad teenage poetry.

I can't decide what song to include with this review. I am tempted to put "Lion-Lamb" from Secret Name, which is the song they played after taking requests from the audience, stating that it needed to be played because it was Easter weekend. This is tricky because I want any of you readers who do not already know Low to hear what it is that has made me love them, which is not anything from Drums And Guns. What to do? Well, I'll do "Dragonfly" so long as we pay attention only to the sounds of the words being sung and not the words themselves. If you need to be properly introduced to Low, listen to Secret Name or Things We Lost In The Fire and go back to their beginning from there.

Low - Dragonfly