erasing clouds

Low, A Lifetime of Temporary Relief: 10 Years of B-Sides & Rarities

reviewed by dave heaton

Conventional logic would say that a release like Low's new boxed set A Lifetime of Temporary Relief: 10 Years of B-Sides & Rarities is for the diehards only, a "gift for fans" that wouldn't be of interest to anyone else. Yet it's such an extensive and enjoyable portrait of Low's unique artistic personality that it'd be a crime for me to say "buy this if you're a huge fan" and end the discussion there. Sure, as a b-sides and rarities collection this set presents the recordings Low didn't choose to put on their proper albums...but in its own way this set stands as a story of the band, as an alternate history, a look at what was lurking right outside the confines of their albums.

The common critic's stereotype of Low - that their music is slower than molasses and perfect for inducing sleep - is both unfair and right. Their songs are slow and stark, and it is easy to imagine what a new Low album will be like once you've heard one. They do have a way - a vision, let's call it - that's all their own. But it isn't about sleep; their slow-motion style is as riveting and powerful as the most energetic punk rock song once you're accustomed to it. In fact, in their own way they have a lot in common with punk and post-punk: they've stripped their music of artifice to get to an essential feeling. Also, each successive Low album isn't just repetition of the past; once you've succumbed to their world their songs don't all sound the same, and A Lifetime of Temporary Relief is as good a place as any to see the diversity within the world they've created.

Low's slow, pretty songs were often compared to Galaxie 500 at first (in part due to producer Kramer's involvement with both bands), and occasionally bear the marks of some of the same bands that influenced Galaxie (there's a darkness in even their prettiest songs that bears a relation to both the Velvet Underground and Joy Division), but comparing Low to other bands, or trying to place them in a category, is a pretty fruitless exercise. In my mind I relate to them more as the musical equivalent of a filmmaker like Yasujiro Ozu, someone who looked at the world around him through a more patient and careful eye, and in doing so revealed many truths and mysteries about the people and places he saw.

Even lyrically Low is about cutting things down to a basic essence. On paper their lyrics read like haikus or riddles, minimalist yet poetic. For example, read the complete song lyrics to "A Plan," from their third album The Curtain Hits the Cast: "On the step you handed me pieces of the plan/at the gate you handed me pieces of the plan/can I hold it for a week." Musically, their songs have a meditative aura - there's something about them that inherently slows life down. On A Lifetime of Temporary Relief this is obvious right from the first two tracks, stunning early demos of "Lullaby" and "Cut" (both from their debut album I Could Live in Hope.

A Lifetime... is arranged basically in chronological order, with the music stretching over 3 CDs. And the first disc overall stands as a perfect introduction to the trio's basic aesthetic. There's a brillant cover of Wire's "Heartbeat" three songs in and a pretty take on the Bee Gees' "I Started a Joke" a few songs later, showing the way the band has filtered other people's songs through their own sensibility (disc 3 dives further into Low's cover versions), and the disc is filled with shining examples of the voices of both singers (guitarist Alan Sparhawk and drummer Mimi Parker), alone and harmonizing beautifully together. "Tired," an outtake from Long Division, and two versions of the Curtain bonus track "Prisoner" are perfect examples of how deeply the group can dive into warped, shadowy territory (even as the latter is lyrically a statement of freedom), while the brief "Bright" and the gorgeous "Walk You Out," both from the sessions for The Curtain Comes to Cast, have an especially open-hearted, warm quality about them, for some reason (note: my use of "for some reason" essentially means that Low's songs always retain a level of mystery for me, even after a significant number of listens).

Over the course of the last 10 years Low's music has remained within the same basic confines, yet they've also developed and refined their sound a great deal. Traveling through Disc 2 reveals that journey well. It starts with the pretty pop song/intense mood-tripping dichotomy of "Venus" and "Boyfriends & Girlfriends" (both from a 1997 Sub Pop 7"), a pairing that separates out two styles that on most Low songs are blurred together as one (with the balance generally titled towards the second personality of the pair). From there the disc runs through a pleasurable stretch of compilation tracks, b-sides and collaborations, including: the great, spookier first version of one of my favorite Low songs ever, Songs for a Dead Pilot's "Be There"; a great acoustic cover of the Beatles' "Long, Long, Long"; an equally beautiful demo version of the Secret Name love song "Will the Night"; the feedback-and-echo-soaked "Joan of Arc (20 Below Mix)", and more.

Disc 3 is where the argument about Low's "sameness" completely explodes, where anyone should be able to see the diversity within their basic m.o. The CD starts with synthesizers and drum machines on the lead-off track "I Remember (single B-side version)", and follows it with an a capella song ("Kindly Blessed," from the a capella comp The Unaccompanied Voice). The Cd also includes 9 cover songs, of everyone from Jandek to Journey (with stops in between at the Smiths, Bob Dylan, Soul Coughing and more). These illustrate the band's wide-ranging musical tastes, but more so than that, they're wonderful examples of how inclusive Low's approach to music is, and how revelatory it can be to hear other musicians' songs through the ears of Low. Disc 3 also includes a one-off improvisation with Transient Waves and Piano Magic and a goofy homemade showbiz tune called "Don't Drop the Baby" - it's easily the least typically "Low" of the three CDs, but in that way it also might be the most fun and the most enlightening for listeners who've made up their minds as to what Low is all about.

Taking the next step towards getting to know Low are the Marc Gartman-directed behind-the-scenes films that make up part of the final disc, a DVD of videos and documentaries. Gartman's three films exist on that fine line between "documentary" and "home movie," but that's not a criticism. I wish every band I admire would release films like these - they give an honest look at the musicians as real people, helping to break down the silly notions of celebrity that sometimes overrun the music world. The music videos stand just as strongly in contrast with the mainstream music industry world, as they are all artistically enticing and interesting, with unique images and a tone that matches the atmosphere of Low's music exactly. The DVD helps round out the boxed set's picture of Low, while increasing the appeal to the 'fans who have everything.' As a whole A Lifetime of Temporary Relief is both an excellent addendum to Low's basic discography and so much more. It stands as a perfect encapsulation of the truly unique and compelling route that they've taken throughout their career.


Issue 25, July/August 2004

this month's issue
about erasing clouds

Copyright (c) 2005 erasing clouds