Here’s my thoughts on what I listened to in the car this week:
Monday June 8th: The Lowest of the Low – Hallucigenia. This wasn’t really the album by the band that I intended to share with you at the start of the week, but when I got into the car, I had forgotten that Mum brought the other one upstairs with her, so you get this one. I’ll do the other one tomorrow. This is the second album by the band, and comparatively a sophomore slump album, though I’ll put this one against lots of other excellent albums and still be satisifed with it. If you love the Weakerthans, you will probably love the Lowest of the Low; the former cites the latter as a major influence, and it shows. Standouts are “Gamble“, for some really effective uses of feedback and the bass guitar, “Beer, Graffiti Walls“, for great lyrics and self-aware self-mockery (and the line: “It seems to me that life is like a shit sandwich / ’cause the more bread you got, the less shit you have to eat”). “Penedono’s Hand” continues in the Spanish Civil War era vein opened in the previous album (which I’ll be talking about more over the next couple nights). All in all, it’s a fascinating album, and one worth listening to, but it’s ultimately not where you should start with the Lowest of the Low. Tomorrow, Shakespeare My Butt.
Tuesday June 9th: The Lowest of the Low – Shakespeare My Butt. Wikipedia notes, “At the time of its release, the album briefly became the best-selling independent release in Canadian history, although it was eclipsed later the same year by Barenaked Ladies’ The Yellow Tape,” which is probably one of the saddest sentences I’ve read lately (sorry Jess). For me personally, I’ve listened to this album so many times I could probably play the entire thing in my head without the benefit of any actual audio equipment; it’s one of my personal favourites. The album is at its strongest where the music best supports Ron Hawkins’ evocative lyrics. “So Long Bernie (unfortunately it’s really hard to find any of their stuff on youtube),” the second piece on the album, evokes the disconnect inherent in learning your neighbour has been a serial killer, opening with the following:
It's like watching murder through your fingers at the theatre It's like finding out Klaus Barbie was your neighbour... only weirder And when I saw you on the tube... With a six-foot cop on either side of you... That's when I knew
I think Hawkins’ greatest strength as a lyricist is finding particularly interesting metaphors, which, while maybe not the highest form of poetry, evoke very distinct, clear images. “Subversives,” defines a particular feeling of love with the words, “There’s something subversive about you and me / ‘Cause there’s a market-value on love and we’re getting something for free.” There’s a lot of storytelling on the album too. “The Hand Of Magdelena” is a story of star-crossed lovers in the Spanish Civil War (that’s the second time it’s come up with this band, actually). Then there’s “Letter From Bilbao,” which is also about Spain, but I will cover in incredible depth tomorrow.
Wednesday June 10th: The Lowest of the Low – Shakespeare My Butt (con’t). In a first for this blog, I am only going to talk about one song today. “Letter From Bilbao” is one of those songs that I love so dearly I will probably oversell it, so you should listen to it first. There’s a lot going on here, and like any other good piece of art, there’s a lot to unpack, a lot of things that need to be inferred because they’re not explicitly stated. “I’m writing you this letter in desperation, I’m afraid,” he starts, which is foreshadowing the direction whole thing is headed, “And I won’t be back to Linsday for the veterans’ parade.” Lindsay is most likely Lindsay Ontario, which is kind of near Petersborough, and there’s an implication that he’s some sort of veteran, I’m guessing of the Spanish Civil War (again), because of the location, Bilbao, where the narrator got “banged up pretty good,” which is a very intentional understatement. Bilbao is in the Basque region of Spain, one of the areas strong in Republican support, where leftists and others from the west lent their support against Franco and the Nationalists. Not bad for two sentences.
Then we get some delightfully descriptive language; the narrator sings, “I am far too young to feel so old, and far too tired to care / that I took down twenty bastards before they left me lying there.” Big fight, more evidence that he’s a veteran, and more evidence that things are worse than he’s outright saying. We get a good instrumental bridge, and then delve into some motivation, “When I landed here a year ago, I know that I believed / that it was better to die upon your feet than to live upon your knees,” which I think further supports the Spanish Civil War thesis, it seems a very “fighting the good fight against the fascists” sentiment, especially knowing as we do now that the Republicans lost the war. This, though, is when the emotional crescendo that’s been building really starts to crest. “It’s not that I care any less for that philosophy,” the narrator continues, “But I would spend one night with you in trade of all that I’ve achieved.” Taking a turn for the personal and emotional, this is not the missive of a person who’s coming home later.
The next lyrics confirm it, and more than anything else this is the line that always breaks my heart: “I was never much on dreams, and they were never big on me / and I can’t dream my way home from a gravesite by the sea.” Gah. It’s a song I’ve heard so many times it doesn’t quite effect me as it used to, but if I’m caught off-guard by it, I have been known to tear up there. The narrator lurches back to his duty and convictions for a moment (“So I clench my fist, and once more sing the Internationale”), but the last words are personal and direct: “And I’ll say ‘Goodbye, I love you’, because it’s time that I should go.”
I think I love this song because it’s just so dense. There’s so much story and emotion and pathos and everything crammed into about two minutes and five seconds. It’s like a poem that tells you just enough to feel what you need to feel and understand what you need to understand with no extraneous bits at all. Tomorrow, the last part of the album, and then Friday something new.
Thursday June 11th: The Lowest of the Low – Shakespeare My Butt (con’t). While I feel that “Letter From Bilbao” is really the climax of the alubm, at least so far as I’m concerned, the denoument has some really good stuff on it too. You’ve got “Under The Carlaw Bridge,” a song about drinking too much and really not having your shit together, only very obviously by somebody from Toronto because he describes only been four blocks from The Only. Then you’ve got “The Taming Of Carolyn,” a slice of life type thing about a woman, which I’m guessing is drawing heavily from people in Hawkins’ life. That gets followed up by a delightfully vicious sort of tirade called, “Gossip Talkin’ Blues,” which eviscerates gossips, and even manages to name-drop the following song with the line, “How do you think that I found out that Henry needs new shoes?” Of course, “Henry Needs A New Pair Of Shoes,” is at its heart about helping those in need directly. After all, “Henry needs new footwear; he doesn’t need a mother.” Overall the entire album is just delightful, even the stuff I didn’t mention by name. It brings me much joy to hear it, and I hope if you listen to it, it brings you joy too.
Friday June 12th: So Young – Try Me. Oh hey, I can’t talk about this now. Stay tuned for a review further down the road.
Saturday June 13th: Tom Waits – Rain Dogs. First, a very happy birthday to my dear mother! Now, last night on facebook I posted this statement:
I listen to a lot of music at night, and I am feeling like none of it quite suits nighttime so perfectly as Tom Waits' "Rain Dogs". Just captures the essence of darkness and nighttime.
There’s a lot to this album, and while I don’t want to stretch this into two nights over two weeks, I’ll probably cover it again at some point in the future. The Wikipedia article for this one, more than any of the ones I’ve done so far, deserves a read. There are some fantastic quotes about working with Tom Waits by the other musicians, but my personal favourite comes from Waits himself, about getting the sounds he wants while eschewing sampling techniques. He said:
If I want a sound, I usually feel better if I've chased it and killed it, skinned it and cooked it. Most things you can get with a button nowadays. So if I was trying for a certain drum sound, my engineer would say: "Oh, for Christ's sake, why are we wasting our time? Let's just hit this little cup with a stick here, sample something (take a drum sound from another record) and make it bigger in the mix, don't worry about it." I'd say, "No, I would rather go in the bathroom and hit the door with a piece of two-by-four very hard."
This idiosyncratic soundscape infuses the entire album with a sense of realness and presence that’s hard to recreate without hunting and killing the sounds yourself, in Waits’ words. It’s full of off-kilter rhythms, atonal piano, and this sense of a generically exotic location in the trashiest of pulp adventure novels. I resisted that oxymoron for awhile, but really, oxymorons are perhaps the best way describe the album. It’s disjointedly holistic, giving us songs like “Tango ‘Til They’re Sore,” and juxtaposing them with songs like “Hang Down Your Head,” in a way that makes them feel like they both belong.
For best listening, grab a glass of whiskey, wait until about 4:45 in the morning, and let the album finish with the dawn. I’m actually serious, when I was finishing up my route, I was finishing the album, and it was just starting to get bright enough to feel like the day was dawning, and I heard, “Anywhere I Lay My Head,” and the sublime serendipity of the timing of this song and the first real light of the day kind of undid me.
Until next week.