It’s been said that writing isn’t so much what you put in as what you leave out: from the minimal, translucent sounds that wafted out of this Duluth, Minnesota, trio in the mid-’90s, it was clear that Low felt the same holds true for music. Although Low employs a standard guitar-bass-drums lineup (okay, Mimi Parker’s kit consists of a snare and a hi-hat), the group managed to draw less from those instruments than any combo in recent memory — and that’s most assuredly a plaudit. Indeed, from humble origins, Low became not only a critically untouchable artistic force but a reasonably popular commercial draw. Over the course of the band’s first dozen years, Low constructed a most elegant artistic arc, from a glacially deadpan cover of “You Are My Sunshine” (on the debut album), building, with inexorable force and breathtaking patience, to the seething rock of their Sub Pop album midway through the ’00s. What’s more, aspects of the band’s back story have entered indie rock mythology: Parker and guitarist/songwriter Alan Sparhawk are married, Mormons, and Minnesotans through and through. Their family life and faith emerged, perhaps hesitantly, as recurring themes in Low’s songs. But more significant than the initial novelty of the band and the “slowcore” genre it eventually spawned is the undeniable power of the band’s best songs and performances.
Low’s debut, I Could Live in Hope, lies just this side of Mennonite in its asceticism. Songs like “Slide,” “Cut” and “Words” (in which Sparhawk’s mumbled “too many words” lament sounds fairly ironic) are taciturn to the point of being monosyllabic, which imparts a certain weight to lyrics that hang heavily over the gray sonic vistas. Kramer’s thin, brittle production style makes him a perfect match for the band, particularly on the slightly less monochromatic songs sung and written by Parker. The cover of “You Are My Sunshine” has roughly the brightness and warmth of whiteout conditions in the Antarctic. The ambience of Long Division is just a whit warmer (not to imply that it won’t still leave you searching for a jacket) — credit that either to the slightly more outgoing presence of new bassist Zak Sally (the only member of the band able to tear his eyes from his feet in live performance) or to the washes of reverb Sparhawk daubs onto tracks like “Shame” and “Swingin’.” A bleakly beautiful perspective on life beneath the permafrost.
The five-song Transmission EP, recorded separately with Kramer and Steve Albini, features Low’s solemn rendition of the Joy Division song for which it’s named. Besides that number (done for 1995’s A Means to an End tribute album), the EP contains a remake of Long Division’s “Caroline” and a cover of the Supreme Dicks’ “Jack Smith.”
The later 1990s saw Sparhawk, Parker and Sally poking around undiscovered corners of the genre they were inventing. The Curtain Hits the Cast is an early highlight: the songs are still achingly slow, and the deadpan singing is scarcely comforting, but the melodies are often lovely. Some of the tracks stretch out well past the eight-minute mark (“Do You Know How to Waltz,” “Laugh”), but the relatively concise and graceful “Over the Ocean” has a winning alternating lead vocal and sticks to radio-single length.
The self-produced Songs for a Dead Pilot is a brutally sparse six-song EP (with a long unlisted track). The opening “Will the Night” sounds like a funeral hymn emanating from an air conditioning duct. “Condescend” includes slowly thudding snare drum, a sawing violin solo and Parker’s precise, eerily distant singing. Listen close and you can hear Parker and Sparhawk’s daughter Hollis gurgling in the background. It’s that kind of mix of alienation and intimacy that characterizes the best Low work.
The first serious digression in Low’s decade-plus evolution was the remix album owL. Initiated by the band’s label, with no significant artistic contribution from Low, owL is a Low album in name only. Among the highlights of this mixed bag is Tranquility Bass’ bouncy, plinking “’91 Party Mix” of “Over the Ocean,” which resets the original melody and singing in a cocktail lounge environment.
Secret Name, Things We Lost in the Fire and Trust are the band’s defining albums, and each is superb in its own way. While not a trilogy in any formal sense, it seems clear that these three albums represent the band at the peak of its songwriting prowess. The themes that emerge are the dangers and fascination of love, religious faith and sacrifice, and the passionate and overwhelming sensation of commitment to family. Secret Name shapes breathtaking songs in surprisingly accessible arrangements, including a concise reprise of “Will the Night” with Sparhawk’s angelic singing, Parker’s delicate harmonies and almost unbearably lush strings. The fact that it’s uncannily reminiscent of the Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody” is not a criticism. “Starfire” is almost the band’s first toe-tapper, and “Lion/Lamb” and the Parker-sung “Weight of Water” delve into mysticism and faith with both heart and guts. The band became markedly more engaged with its audience during live performances around this time — a positive development for a bad that tours incessantly — and a sense emerges that Low is endeavoring, at times, to entertain.
The Albini-produced Things We Lost in the Fire stretches Low’s sonic horizons even further, with a string section, trumpets and guest keyboards and tape loops. “Sunflower” opens with a mid-tempo (which is to say, for Low, fast) strummed guitar and Parker’s thumped snares. Sparhawk’s lyrics have never been easy to understand, but the uneasy mix of sacrifice and ascendance in “Sunflower” is remarkable. “When they found your body / Giant x’s on your eyes / With your half of the ransom you bought some sweet, sweet, sweet / sweet sunflowers and gave them to the night.” “Dinosaur Act” has a thumping rock chorus and quietly sung verses. Typically, religious and erotic love themes are largely indistiguishable in Low tunes. In “Laser Beams” Parker vows “I need your grace alone.” The most fascinating song may be the gently strummed closer in which Parker sings to her daughter, “I partly hate to see you grow / and just like your baby shoes / wish I could keep your little body / in metal.”
After two albums that opened with a tone-setting stunner, Trust reached a new benchmark with the seven-minute “(That’s How You Sing) Amazing Grace,” which half-borrows the hymn to explore themes of religious faith and sacrifice with a profound sense of awe as well as a frisson of fear. Later, “The Lamb” coolly examines Christ-like sacrifice in a first-person narrative. In the soaring climax of “Little Argument With Argument” Tchad Blake’s mix makes Low sound bigger than ever; the churning “Canada” and “Last Snowstorm of the Year” are sweeping in their power. Only “John Prine,” its inexplicable title notwithstanding, is a return to the gloomy guitar strum and snare drum thwack of Dead Pilot and earlier works. In the midst of it all “La La La Song” is a breathtaking love letter from Sparhawk to Parker. As always, Sally’s bass keeps the pulse.
In the midst of these ambitious studio albums, Low released a slew of side projects, including a pair of live albums (Paris ’99 and One More Reason to Forget, as well as the Christmas album. This brief record is a throwback, in musical terms, to the bare-bones sparsity of I Could Live in Hope and Long Division. In addition to traditional seasonals (a drab “Little Drummer Boy” and a far better cover of Elvis’s “Blue Christmas”), the disc contains sincere religious originals. “If You Were Born Today” bleakly speaks to the modern relevance of Christ. Fans will definitely want to seek this out, as it unflinchingly demonstrates the seriousness of the band’s music while illustrating some of the values that imbue Sparhawk and Parker’s lives. (In 2001, Kranky reissued Christmas and Dead Pilot on a single disc in Japan.)
Other ephemera from this era include a split EP with k. (Karla Schickele of Ida) and the Shanti Project benefit album for a San Francisco AIDS hospice, to which Low, Red House Painters, Idaho and Misc. donated songs. Many of these small projects were issued on the band’s own Chairkickers label.
A Lifetime of Temporary Relief is a comprehensive four-disc box of B-sides, covers, live tracks, alternate takes and other rarities. The cover selection may shock the casual listener (the Bee Gees???), but Low has always had a quirky sense of humor to leaven the solemnity. It’s an absorbing demonstration of influences, experiments, and digressions, but probably best-suited for completists.
Low moved to Sub Pop in 2005. The Great Destroyer has songs with kinetic drive, mid-to-fast tempos, and unapologetically loud singing. In short, it blows preconceptions about Low’s limitations completely out of the water. Low had plumbed the depths of slowcore and its possibilities for years, and the added rock energy here is understandable within the band’s progress toward extroversion and engagement. The songwriting is not up to the band’s best, but the album otherwise upholds its predecessors qualities. There may be no more controlled singers in rock than Parker and Sparhawk, so when they unleash the full strength of their voices, the fury of “Monkey” or the sympathetic warmth of “California” is undeniable. In general, the lyrics are harsh, matching the screeching guitars of “Pissing.” Even the promising vow “Tonight you will be mine” is followed by the ominous chant “Tonight the monkey dies.” (The band later took an uncustomary break from touring and recording, as Sparhawk acknowledged problems with depression and substance abuse.)
Tonight the Monkeys Die is an EP of remixes of The Great Destroyer’s “Monkey”. In contrast to owL: Remix, these were commissioned and released by the band. Notable names behind the decks include Stephin Merritt (Magnetic Fields) and Bob Mould.