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Monday, November 21, 2005

Great Christmas Music #5
(click here for introduction, and here for a word on copyright)

Long Way Around The Sea
Low


I have come to realize that most people have never heard of some of the Christmas songs I would put in my Top 10. A case in point is "Long Way Around The Sea," by the band Low. I cherish this song like some fans cherish their favorite team's pennant season.

Low is one of the foremost "slowcore" bands -- "slowcore" being the musical genre that proclaims that "slow is the new fast" and "quiet is the new loud," and that rebelliously aims to evoke a meditative state rather than an agitated one. (After all, there's only so much hell-raising you can do by getting faster and louder; by the time you've heard G.G. Allin and the Murder Junkies destroy the human condition with two verses and a bridge, you realize there's not much more you can do with the "punk" sound. So how do you rebel? You do a judo throw on the whole concept. You defy the audience's expectations by being slow, man, slower than slow. You want to dance? That's so over. Of course, there will inevitably be a backlash against this someday, as people get fed up with posers who try to impress people with their ability to withstand seven straight hours of depressed guys noodling around with a bass guitar and a cymbal.)

Slowcore usually sounds like lukewarm Radiohead.

Anyway, Low consists of three Mormons from Utah, which is damned uncommon in the indie music world and in the music world in general. They aren't "Mormon musicians" in the sense that they proselytize through their music;* they're just Mormons who like to rock... really slowly.

* The parallel, of course, is the difference between "Christian music" and music played by Christians. The former is a ministry, the latter is a profession, and the former always becomes the latter. Case in point: Michael W. Smith, a "Christian musician" before he became a Christian musician. Amy Grant -- "Christian musician" to Christian musician to Target spokeswoman. Jessica Simpson -- "Christian musician" to Christian musician to self-parody. Seldom does it go in reverse. Bob Dylan went Christian, then he went secular again, and was last seen in a Victoria's Secret commercial looking like Vincent Price.

Low's 1999 album "Christmas" is fantastic if you're ready for slow, intense emotion during the Christmas season. Though the album is highly regarded by the few that have ever written about it, the album actually seems to put some people off -- some because of its slow speed, but others because the Christmas theme is treated reverently. Believing that Christmas has meaning brings a band dangerously close to being a "Christian band" rather than just a Christian band, and members of Low take the Christmas story seriously. They sing about the meaning of Christmas earnestly, and as a result the music is suffused with genuine spirituality. That's a real rarity -- there are a lot of god-awful Christmas albums produced by "Christian musicians." Mostly because there are a lot of "Christian musicians" who are strong on the "Christian" and weak on the "musician," if you know what I mean and I think you do. Low manages to break out of that ghetto and make some amazing music.

It starts off with an upbeat song called "Just Like Christmas," which sounds like a bunch of depressed Mormons doing their best to try to do a "happy" Christmas record, which it pretty much is. Strangely, it works -- the tension makes the song much more interesting than if anyone else had tried it. Another high point is "If You Were Born Today," which frankly advises Christ that he would be dead by age eight in the modern world. Again, when they do it, it works. Their version of "The Little Drummer Boy" is bizarre and wonderful, and raised more than a few eyebrows when it was featured in a Gap ad in 2000. It takes you a very long time to realize that the song is indeed "The Little Drummer Boy" and not something else entirely.

But the shining star of the album is "Long Way Around The Sea," a somber and sparse retelling of the Wise Men story in Matthew 2. Most of the song is nothing more than "Take the long way around the sea," sung over and over again in a slow incantation. It powerfully evokes the journey to Bethlehem and their arduous return by a different road to avoid Herod. And given Mormon theology regarding Lehi's travel across the seas to the New World, and Christ's subsequent visit there, I suspect that the imagery takes on a more distinctly Mormon bent than any other Christmas song I have heard.

At any rate, it's an incredibly moving song, and I halfway pray that it remains relatively undiscovered. I have only heard one "cover" of it, and that was on one of Pedro the Lion's Christmas 45s. (He's another Christian artist who isn't a "Christian musician," and he trends toward emo and slowcore of his own, so it's a good fit. It just isn't as well-done.)

Few Christmas albums succeed when the artist tries to slow down the music and get "serious." When one takes away the fast rhythm, usually all that is left is the blazing ego of the performer or the poor songwriting that infects most Christmas music. It gives Christmas a bad reputation for mawkish, false emotion, which in turn conveys the idea that Christmas is a childish holiday.

But when Low peels away the fast rhythm and the peppy lyrics, you see them more clearly, and it's worth seeing. All that remains are three musicians earnestly presenting songs about faith. It's "childishness," yes, but of the sort that confounds the wise.

 6:00 PM

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