Music

A Crooked and Unseen Highway: lowercase - "She Takes Me"

The newest Between the Grooves series tackles Lowercase's Kill the Lights, a great marriage of slowcore and post-punk: raw, angry, sullen, and very much alive almost 20 years later.


lowercase

Kill the Lights

Label: Amphetamine Reptile
US Release Date: 1997-07-08
UK Release Date: 1997-08-07
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“Folding corners into perfect shapes / Went forlorn in a vapor of Elysian escapes”

That’s how these lines to "She Takes Me" read in the liner notes of lowercase's Kill the Lights, at least. Coming out of the singer’s mouth, that second bit resembles something more like “when forlorn pings make hell each escape.” Not a full minute into the album, and already results diverge from intent. It won’t be the last discrepancy between the lyric sheet and the words that are actually sung -- that is, if they even come out as words at all.

”I came nightly to this place / By the way of a crooked and unseen highway”

There are scads of rock records that plumb the depths of sadness and self-loathing. Sadness, obviously, is a fundamental fuel for all kinds of music. As for self-loathing, it takes up a significant portion of the entrance exam to the halls of college rock -- or alt-rock, if you prefer -- since at least the mid-'80s. Beyond that, there are records on another, more exclusive plain: those that are thoroughly, unforgivingly bleak. Such records can be almost theatrically dour, like the Cure’s "Goth trilogy"; unsparingly grim and visceral, like Joy Division’s Closer; or anywhere else on that morose spectrum. Kill the Lights, lowercase’s second album, is up (or down) there with the best of them.

”I can’t find myself anyway / So she takes me there / I can’t be myself anyway / Still she takes me there”

Imaad Wasif and Brian Girgus met when they were teenagers growing up in Palm Desert, California. They had known of each other for a while, but only started talking after turning up at enough of the same shows. When they decided to start playing music together, they initially imagined that Wasif would play guitar and Girgus would play bass. Finding a drummer didn’t pan out like they had hoped, so Girgus filled the role. Even after that, the search for a suitable third member of the band proved unlucky, so lowercase became a de facto duo.

Roughly a year after Wasif and Girgus started jamming together, they released their first 7” single, “Sometimes I Feel Like A Vampire” with the B-side “Surefire Solvent”, on Punk in My Vitamins?, the label run by Vern Rumsey of Unwound. Unwound and lowercase shared certain sonic aesthetics and work habits, and would end up playing a number of shows together.

Not long after, in 1996, the Minneapolis-based label Amphetamine Reptile put out lowercase’s debut album. Taking its title from a line in “See No Evil”, the first song on Television’s Marquee Moon, the lo-fi All Destructive Urges... Seem So Perfect fuses Sonic Youth’s discordance and detachment with Nirvana’s vitriol and vulnerability.

Wasif and Girgus recorded the album with Tom Grimley at his home studio in Los Angeles, Poop Alley, which had previously hosted artists like Beck, that dog, and the Rentals. The aura of huddled intimacy on the record is heightened by the "live" sound of the recordings. On one song, you can hear a phone ringing in the background, and, allegedly, the sound of someone walking in to a bathroom and pulling down their pants on a different tune.

"Within seconds the room was filled / Angels pushed her from my windowsill”

Following All Destructive Urges... Seem So Perfect, Kill the Lights came a mere year later in 1997. By that time, Wasif and Girgus had relocated to San Francisco, which even back then wasn’t the easiest city in which to be a struggling musician. On the outside, things might have seemed to be going well, at least at first. The two had even finally found that elusive bass player to fill out their sound. As is often the case, however, things weren’t going as smoothly as they might have appeared from the outside.

A couple of years afterward, in an interview with Andrew Bottomley for the summer 1999 issue of Skyscraper, Girgus elaborated on the inter-band turmoil going on at that time:

We started working on [Kill the Lights] and writing it as soon as I got here [San Francisco], and Imaad and me started having some really intense problems together. We were both going in these weird directions that were really un-communicated, and we weren’t really on any kind of positive -- it wasn’t always negative or anything, it wasn’t bitter, but there was very rarely a good feeling when we’d get together for things. It always just felt fucked, everything was just kind of fucked.

"Far below me the semblance burned / Embers of halos kindling in her”

“Everything is just kind of fucked” is a fitting way to sum up the outlook of Kill the Lights. Its anger, frustration and hopelessness build continuously from start to finish. In that way, the album’s first track, “She Takes Me”, can be somewhat misleading. With a stabbing guitar riff, the song leaps to its feet, as Girgus pounds out practically the most straight-forward and driving beat lowercase had used up to that point. The new addition of the bass gives the band a heft that is missing on their debut, which allows Wasif to let his open chords resonate. If lowercase were ever going to get a song played on MTV’s 120 Minutes, this would have been it; in fact, it might be the closest thing to a “normal” rock song they ever committed to tape.

And yet, churning just underneath the up-tempo veneer are Wasif’s lyrics about an unholy temptress who comes disguised as a celestial guide. Even after her defenestration at the hands of those who have the narrator’s best interests at heart, he elects to stick with her:

”I can’t find myself anyway / So she takes me there / I can’t be myself anyway / Still she takes me there”

He must see something in her that we don’t.

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