The Insomnia Diaries – Low

Art: Glenn Miller Montoya

A few years ago, I had a bout of insomnia. Although this wasn’t good for my health, it opened the floodgates to many a band, film, book and show that I’ve never got around to until this. This monthly column will mention a few of these discoveries.

The thing they never tell you about insomnia is how surreal the days are, when fatigue messes with your perspective and hours lose a meaning. It’s only when night falls that time really slows down and all the thoughts and fears that flew around during the day come ‘round to your head and loudly play fear poker all night long.

I know it’s the common joke that MTV doesn’t have videos any more, but in those sleepless nights, somewhere around 2 am, while the other channels had infomercials or sleazy programs, MTV Latino had 2 hours of music videos. It helped to put a face to a couple of names that were being bandied around blogs and websites. Some stuff was terribly overrated, some was just too samey to make a mark and some was pretty great. So I started to bring a notepad and a pencil to bed, to jolt down in the dark band names, songs and general writing ideas.

It was on one of those nights that I first heard of Low. The video was ‘Monkey’ and from the shocking noise at the beginning, I was hooked. The snowy landscapes, the uneasy mood of the song and the vocal dynamics between Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk made me a fan of the band. I scrambled for a piece of paper to scribble the name of the band and continued to watch with glazed eyes the rest of the show until those 3 or so hours of rest came about. If they happened at all. It’s all hazy now.

Mix Up, (a de facto  music shop monopoly in Mexico) only had The Great Destroyer and Things we lost in the fire, hidden away in the discount bin (El Botadero, as a friend and me called it). Got them both for less than 150 pesos (about 7 pounds). This discount bin had a plethora of great bands with great albums that people never bought and I’m still to this day befuddled (and grateful) for this. Thrice, Jeff Buckley, Stars, The Streets, Brand New, Ryan Adams, ah, those are all part of another article dedicated to the magic of discount bins. Low is the focus of this tirade.

After purchasing both albums, I listened to them and, shock and heresy, I didn’t like Things we lost in the fire, it was The Great Destroyer for me, an album that had that ominous ‘Monkey’, the refreshing pop of ‘California’ and the apocalyptic explosion that is ‘Pissing’, one of the creepiest moments in any band’s discography. ‘Death of a salesman’ was a window into the mind of Low and ‘Silver Rider’ somehow made me think of my early days, when I was in Catholic school.

Although never overtly religious, there were some words that could’ve been attached to religious undertones, but I didn’t want to apply my ideology to the artistic expression of someone else, as I don’t enjoy overanalysing someone’s work so much. Still, the primordial emotions that the music of Low were displaying made me a fan for sure.

And then I started to look at the back catalog and considered getting them all, in slow doses, just to not overindulge and to give each album a bit of room to breathe, like a good wine. I eventually enjoyed and loved Things we lost in the fire, same for everything before, with Trust being a particular favourite. Goes to show that this band can sometimes be a slow burning grower for some.

Once the insomnia receded, for reasons unknown I moved away from Low for a while, only revisiting ‘Monkey’, ‘Dinosaur act’ and ‘California’ from time to time or for the odd mix cd gift to friends. I did come back to the fold with Drums and guns, a tough album for tough times, but pretty much a masterpiece. It was also one of the darkest things I’ve heard, which goes to show that you can do horror in a very subtle way. Maybe it was an experience they got from that Mothman Prophecies soundtrack?

Drums and guns was pretty stark and although it’s on my top 3 Low albums (just below The Great Destroyer), I sometimes stay away from it, with emotions and sounds that are too raw to handle and a couple of bad memories attached (I still love cake.) I’d venture to say that Retribution Gospel Choir became an outlet to the overtly dark overtones (see ‘Poor Man’s daughter’ for more on this) and 2011’s C’mon feels more at ease, with some of the tricks from The Great Destroyer and Drums and guns still skulking around (see ‘$20’ for a particularly stark moment). ‘Especially me’ was a particularly gorgeous moment from this album, a mix of nostalgia with introspection, and yes, even hope.

Because let’s face it: without hope, any sort of sad music becomes insufferable. While its true you’ll struggle to “bang you heaaaad!” to any songs by Low, I do believe it’s one of the best bands to explore the grayer shades of the emotional spectrum and still bring a few positives to the table.  For something as emotionally intense as ‘Take your time’, there will be something slightly more optimistic at the end of the line. I can name ‘Just make it stop’ from this year’s The Invisible Way as a good balance between sadness and hope, with the layers of music slowly building on top of each other, like the layered clothes you put on before facing a particularly cold day.

These days, I pretty much listen to Low and Retribution Gospel Choir in equal doses (or so says my account) because somehow I find in their music something cinematic that manages to inspire me while writing, whether it’s a short story or another chapter of a novel I do hope to finish soon. Low‘s evolving sound has always been an interesting one and it’s always appreciated when a band changes their style without losing their identity. The face of Low that many people see is a face of slowness and depression and maybe there’s something of that in the slow but sweeping tunes they create are a reward, as there is some blissful catharsis in the glacial pace of these songs.

PS: Low has made some pretty solid covers over the years. Check Toto’s ‘Africa‘, Joy Division’s ‘Transmission‘, The Smith’s ‘Last night I dreamt that somebody loved me‘, Bee Gees’ ‘I started a joke‘ and Rihanna’s ‘Stay‘.

Words: Sam J. Valdés López

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