Low


(Copyright © 1999-2019 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )
I Could Live In Hope, 8/10
Long Division, 7.5/10
The Curtain Hits The Cast, 7/10
Songs For A Dead Pilot, 6/10
Secret Name , 7/10
Christmas , 6/10
Things We Lost In The Fire , 7/10
In The Fishtank , 5/10
Trust , 7.5/10
Black-Eyed Snakes: It's The Black-Eyed Snakes (2002), 5/10
A Lifetime Of Temporary Relief (2004), 5/10
The Great Destroyer (2005), 6/10
Alan Sparhawk: Solo Guitar (2006), 6.5/10
Drums And Guns (2007), 6/10
Retribution Gospel Choir: Retribution Gospel Choir (2008), 6/10
C'mon (2011), 5/10
Retribution Gospel Choir: 2 (2010), 5/10
Retribution Gospel Choir: 3 (2013), 6/10
Low: Invisible Way (2013), 4/10
Low: Ones And Sixes (2015), 5/10
Low: Double Negative (2018), 6.5/10
Low: Hey What (2021) , 6/10
Links:

(Clicka qua per la versione Italiana)

Summary.
Even if less visible than other American innovators of the 1990s, Minneapolis' Low have coined a style which is unique and ahead of its time, far removed from the stereotypes of their contemporaries, ascetic more than minimal, the rock equivalent of Japanese haiku and Tibetan mantra. Low resurrected the depressed and anemic mood of Nick Drake and, after wedding it to LaMonte Young's minimalism, they adapted it to the "slo-core" aesthetic. The chemistry of the band is mysterious, because none of them seems particularly skilled in compositional or executional matters, but, nonetheless, the end results are always mesmerizing. Low are the quintessential case of "the whole is more than the sum of its parts".


Full bio.
(Translated from my original Italian text by Nicole Zimmerman and proof-edited by Matteo Russo)

Low, a duo from Minneapolis formed by singer and guitarist Alan Sparhawk and drummer Mimi Parker, created a minimalistic aesthetic equivalent to a Japanese haiku or a Tibetan mantra. The mood reflects the depressed and passive Nick Drake, even without words.

The influence of Codeine is obvious on their disorganized EP titled Low (Summershine, 1994).

I Could Live In Hope (Vernon Yard, 1994 - Plain, 2012) is an album of little means but grand effect and is almost perfect. There are 11 songs that flow like poems, played and sung as if in a dream. Words establishes the theme that runs through the majority of their work: harmony between soft and languid guitar like that of Cowboy Junkies and bass hopping like the songs played in a cocktail lounge, and a radiant melody like that of Luna. The songs timidly follow, without significantly varying from the theme: Fear, short and phantasmal, just as Nick Drake prefers; Lazy, which is drowned in psychedelic guitar reverbs that sound like a religious psalm; Down, a depressing ballad on which the guitar has a dark sound like that of Chris Isaak; Drag, a neurotic litany in the style of Neil Young; and Sunshine, an lovestruck lullaby resembling an old† 1950's tune.
A transcendent quality emerged from Cut, more cerebral and a bit more mournful, almost like a mantra in its solemn concentration, the melodious Slide, a song by the drummer Mimi Parker, lulls with hypnotic chiming, and above all Rope, an intricate guitar jam on which the singing slips† into a trance.
Lullaby, the song in which Alan Sparhawk placed all his hope, is a 10 minute spiritual song in slow motion, a funeral dirge of sorts, which collapses into a sad guitar cry. Its instrumental coda, in a continuous crescendo, comes close to the long improvisations of the raga-psychedelic songs of the 1960's.
Many of the tracks are of sublime quality, immediately laureating Low among the greatest poets of rock music.

The tranquil melancholy of Long Division (Vernon Yard, 1995 - Plain, 2012), relies even more on minimalistic instrumental harmonies, with the bass of Zak Sally diligently anchored to the minor scale, the distinct tones of Alan Sparhawk on guitar seem to glide the melody as if over a still lake, whos surface is slowly deformed by Mimi Parkerís beat (using brushes not sticks). The low sounds of the guitar and the pulse of a night club style drum subdue the thematic ballads of Shame and Alone in the subliminal aesthetic of the Cowboy Junkies.
The comatose minimalism of Turn and the long passionate digression of Stay are variations of the nervous depression of nightmares. However, their strength is in the use of these introductions to create an air of excitement not frustration. The faint crescendo of See-through is a saga about how emotion can be formed from nothing. Parkerís whisper makes Below & Above sound like an eerie Renaissance hymn.
The slow motion vocal harmonies on tracks, such as Throw Out The Line, are ecstatic almost to the degree of a Tibetan prayer: he recites a spell while in a trance and she surrounds it with her lilting trills. Maximum purity of tones is reached in Violence, one step removed from Zen and psychedelia and, I would even dare say, ďambientĒ (if there can be such a thing as ambient music for rock trios).
Few groups in the history of rock (The Velvet Underground, The Doors, ?) have hypnotized the concert-going public as the Low have done (I have been witness). More than just followers of Codeine and Seam, the Low affirmed themselves among the masters of atmospheric rock, together with Red House Painters, Galaxie 500, Mazzy Star, and Idaho.

After the EP titled Transmission (Vernon Yard, 1995), which featured a Joy Division cover as well as a new version of Caroline (from Long Division), The Curtain Hits The Cast (Vernon Yard, 1996 - Plain, 2012) dished out the splendid themes of Over the Ocean and The Plan. The more formidable Laugh, Coattails, and the droning Do You Know How To Waltz (14 minutes) opened up new, quasi-ambient aesthetic possibilities. The pools of desolation of Anon and Mom Says are balanced by the slender thread of emotion in Dark and Stars Gone Out. The single Venus/Boyfriends And Girlfriends (SubPop, 1996) completes the bandís inventory for the first period.

Songs For A Dead Pilot (Kranky, 1997), only 36 minutes and recorded in a home-studio, explored the experimental aspects of the preceding albums. The highlight of the work is Born By The Wires (13 minutes), an exasperated slow motion that is as close to silence as was ever orchestrated, one chord plucked carefully and deliberately after another under microscopic attention, increasingly sparse and reverberated, until they sound like bells tolling to remember the death of Tim Buckley. The chamber-style music for Cello, at a funeral tempo, in Condensed and the disoriented ballad of Landlord, are less successful experiments in the opposite direction. Whirlpools of murmurs (Will The Night) and esoteric pulsations (Condensed, wrongly titled Be There) complete the search for the sound that raised Low from amateur pop of the past, although perhaps distorting a little of their talent.

Low gave new meaning to slow and intimate rock, a genre that is ironically the anti-thesis of rock. Embracing the properties of sound and singing and diminishing the properties of rhythm and riff, renewing the musical grammar of moral depression, of psychological excavation, and emotional breakdown, Low have rediscovered the little joys of poets, those that unearth the sadness of the human soul.


(Original text by Piero Scaruffi)

Owl Remix Low (Vernon Yard, 1998) goes against their own artistic ethos by employing a number of electronic musicians to produce remixes of their songs.

Secret Name (Kranky, 1999) follows up Songs' experiments and expands the instrumentation adding a string section, piano and timpani. The frigid balladry of I Remember and Weight Of Water drowns in a lattice of empty notes. Low's "song" is chamber music for emotions that slowly fade away, that are never truly felt. Five Step is country music for ghosts (a duet of decaying voices, an extremely slow tempo) and Soon (featuring a terrifying instrumental intermezzo) sounds like a lullaby for unborn babies. This is not to say that the music itself is devoid of emotions. On the contrary, the unbearable delay and dilation of musical structures fosters and maintains a density of feelings that an ordinary refrain would release in a few seconds. Low sometimes performs with the intensity of a church hymn (Missouri) or a requiem (Days Of Salvation, possibly the gentlest melodic swoon of their career).
A handful of songs display an almost conventional structure. A Robert Wyatt-ian falsetto intones the suave Galaxie 500-ian litany of Starfire. Will The Night is almost orchestral pop and Immune is virtually a lounge ballad.
On the other hand, a few compositions attemp to outdo the most experimental pieces of the past. The longest and most ambitous, Don't Understand, is a psychedelic piece that relies on electronic effects, banging percussions and trancey vocals. More effective are the shorter Home, that closes the album in a piano-based middle-eastern threnody of Lion
Less glacial and less desperate than any of their previous albums, this work abandons the existential limbo, the Buddhist monastery where the band spent its formative years, without sacrificing any of the beliefs, and enters a world made of real lives.

The Christmas (Tugboat, 1999) album is a pretext for assembling a few rarities and covers. Long Way Around The Sea is quintessential Low, but If You Were Born Today (the 1988 single) has a strong melodic appeal and Just Like Christmas is so upbeat that it sounds almost like Sixties revival.

Things We Lost In The Fire (Kranky, 2001) is their most accomplished album yet, if not the most creative. Songs are better structured than ever, refrains are hummable if not catchy, the drums are prominent, and the arrangement is elegant and graceful. Whatever element was not user-friendly in their harmonic presentation has been removed.
The drawback is that Low's melodies belong to the tradition of old-time music. Medicine Magazines, to name one, oozes with echoes of 1950s easy-listening. the damage limited by a braid of delicate piano figures. Other tunes hark back to folk songs and nursery rhymes.
The opening track, Sunflower, is one of their most accessible songs ever, thanks to a simple two-voice melody, pounding drums and hypnotic strumming. These "easier", normalized, relatively straightforward tracks are enriched by sudden turns of orchestration that are both tasty and illogical. Here, a cello melody against a violin drone that prepares the piano-based return.
Similarly, Dinosaur Act, a Neil Young-ian ballad backed by martial drumming, violent guitar distortions and acid organ drones, picks up a new dimension when a funereal trumpet shows up to sustain the dramatic ending.
The catchiest moment of their career may be in July. The soaring vocal harmonies (quasi-Jefferson Airplane) rise and fall, propelled by solemn drumming and greeted by a procession of electronic keyboards (a sturdy Hammond organ, a King Crimson-ian mellotron, a jazzy vibraphone).
One asset of Low is this ability to color all paintings of a strange, metaphysical light. The other, gigantic, asset is Mimi Parker's voice. Parker has matured immensely as a vocalist. Her prolonged vocal gestures often recall the spaced-out style of the young Grace Slick, except that they are imbued with the austere restraint of a nun. Parker's vocals lend themselves to an intriguing ambivalence, climbing the dizzy heights of acid-rock when they plunge into the gloomy depths of the gregorian chant. At times, she sounds like a hybrid of Tim Buckley and Margo Timmins (Cowboy Junkies). The country ode Laser Beam is sung by Parker with the sole accompaniment of frugal guitar tones. The other emotional blackhole, Embrace, paced by an ominous drum worthy of a Morricone score, comes to life after the violin begins its romantic buzz, and suddenly charges with anthemic vigor. Add Sparhawk's Whitetail, a psychedelic, dilated mantra paced by frenetic cymbals and a loud, hammering guitar tone, and this triad of prayers gives the album an unquestionable spiritual quality.
The carefully sequenced song cycle glides down to earth with the folk-ish compositions towards the end, notably the violin-tinged, slowly waltzed duet Closer. The music breaths again after suspending itself in a zen-like apnea. Instead of the conceptual sonic architectures, tambourines and acoustic guitars underpin the epic crescendo of In Metal.
The central section of the album could be the most intense piece of music the band ever played. It stretches beyond rock and roll, well into western and eastern classical music. There is something absolute about Parker's majestic voice floating over Sparhawk's sonic graveyards.

Low and Dirty Three recorded an installment of the series titled In The Fishtank (Subpop, 2001), five shorts and one long Neil Young cover. If I Hear Goodnight sounds merely like Low with Warren Ellis on violin, When I Called Upon Your Seed is a country gem. However, the album is not a major work for either band.

Within Low's self-imposed regimen of subdued emotions and under-played instruments, the formal perfection of Trust (Kranky, 2002) is astonishing.
Canada is a masterpiece of subtle metamorphoses, fusing riff-driven hard-rock, bass-heavy funk-jazz, sunny Byrds-ian folk-rock and Velvet Underground's psycho-beat.
Candy Girl is a nightmare of a ballad, blending funeral music and native-american drums, the singer praying like a shaman and ominous noises and voices filling the background. Even more rarified, bordering on the psychedelic and the ghostly, is the filigree of Tonight, every note exhaling a mystical essence and bleeding personal experience. I Am The Lamb is the logical peak of this concealed religious craving, a spiritual in disguise that, picking up a martial pace, ends up sounding like ceremonial music for exoteric rituals.
After paying homage to their muse Neil Young in In The Drugs, they intone a terrifying requiem to John Prine, which sounds, again, like a native-american funeral.
It is a sign of maturity that they quote so much from the history of music. The anemic waltz of Amazing Grace is their best imitation yet of Chris Isaak fronting the Cowboy Junkies. And, if signs matter as semioticians claim, La La La Song is not a parody, but rather a nostalgic wink at the music of Neil Diamond, while Point of Disgust toys with the vocal harmonies of folk music the way a wolf digs a hole to hide its food for the cold season.
The lengthy Shots and Ladders that closes the album belongs to the supreme free-form hymns of spaced-out psychedelia, to the links of David Crosby's If I Could Only Remember My Name and Tim Buckley's Starsailor. The voices glide into a black hole of bass drones and sparse distortions, they are refracted and multiplied and silenced, and they finally drown into a majestic vortex of shapeless sound.
As far as sound goes, this could well be Low's darkest, bleakest, "lowest" album, a sort of Tonight's the Night for the slo-core generation. It also shows the immense latitude that this genre still has. By dilating and stretching the cardinal points of the horizon, Low have simply reinvented the landscape.

The mini-album Radio Broadcasts (Chairkickers, 2003), credited to Elegy, documents a live 25-hour performance by a group of musicians (including Alan Sparhawk of Low and Jessica Bailiff, and featuring guitar, cello, keyboards, percussion, hurdy gurdy, dulcimer) that was meant as a requiem to dead friends.

Alan Sparhawk has a side-project, the Black-Eyed Snakes, that plays punk-blues a` la Jon Spencer Blues Explosion on It's The Black-Eyed Snakes (Chairkickers, 2002) and Rise Up (Chairkickers, 2003).

A Lifetime Of Temporary Relief (Chairkickers' Music, 2004) is a three-cd box-set of rarities, mostly of negligible interest. Basically, you pay a lot money to get the single Venus/ Boyfriends And Girlfriends, the only noteworthy "rarity" on these discs. Most of the rest sounds like demos, not rarities. A demo is a demo is a demo.

The magic is largely gone from The Great Destroyer (SubPop, 2005). By their (very high) standards, this is mere routine. Low took a holiday from their austere faculty job and relaxed at the beach. with the poppy refrains of California, Walk Into the Sea and (gasp) the power-ballad Just Stand Back. Tired of whispering their subtle harmonic layers, Low decide to shout them (relatively speaking) to the brain-impaired MTV crowd with Monkey, Everybody's Song and When I Go Deaf. Exhausted by their zen-like self-composure of so many years, they unleash their neuroses with Silver Rider and On the Edge Of. Low has found a compromise between punk-pop and slo-core. It will certainly help pay the bills the way previous albums didn't. Bands who approach the end of their career offer do that: cash in.

Alan Sparhawk's Solo Guitar (2006) is a collection of narrative pieces in a mildly psychedelic and oneiric manner. The 18-minute How a Freighter Comes into the Harbor and the 13-minute Sagrado CorazĘn de Jesu - Second Attempt employ a vast arsenal of (and very dynamic) drones, dissonances and reverbs that find a unique compromise between Acid Mothers Temple's Kawabata Makoto, John Fahey and Main.

Drums And Guns (2007), featuring new bassist Matt Livingston, was their requiem for the Iraq war. The 13 songs were unassuming, humble, stark, introverted. With the exception of Hatchet (which is power-pop, by their slo-core standards), each and every song reiterated the mournful and dejected mood, all the way to the cacophonous apotheosis of Violent Past. This funereal parade stands in contrast with the almost bombastic and relatively energetic The Great Destroyer.

Alan Sparhawk of Low launched another project, the Retribution Gospel Choir (Cycle, 2008), a power-trio (Eric Pollard on drums and Matt Livingston on bass) devoted to Neil Young-style gloomy folk-rock.

Low's bassist Zak Sally debuted solo with Fear Of Song (La Mano, 2009), a deviant psychedelic work that ranged from St(R)Utter (for distorted guitars, industrial drumming and electronic effects) to Syd Barrett-ian acoustic lullabies.

C'mon (Sub Pop, 2011), with new bassist Steve Garrington (also on piano and organ), feels more like a collection of erudite ideas than an organic whole, and none of the ideas feels complete, not even the eight-minute Nothing But Heart with Nels Cline on steel guitar.

Allan Sparhawk's Retribution Gospel Choir displayed a noisy and aggressive attitude on 2 (Sub Pop, 2010), especially the eight-minute Electric Guitar and Poor Man's Daughter. Tired of repeating his slocore format, now that slocore is no longer avantgarde, Sparhawk seemed tempted by old-fashioned power-pop.

The Retribution Gospel Choir embraced mainstream rock with the EP The Revolution (2012), that was either a way for Sparhawk to proof that he could be a regular rock star or a goofy caricature of the genre. The Retribution Gospel Choir was de facto a power-trio with bassist Steve Garrington and drummer Eric Pollard on 3 (Sub Pop, 2013), Sparhawk's most aggressive work yet, containing only the 20-minute Can't Walk Out, a loud and grating guitar jam a` la Neil Young, and the 21-minute Seven, a collaboration with avant-jazz guitarist Nels Cline (engaging guitar interplay but tedious singing).

Low's Invisible Way (2013), produced by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, made the piano one of the main voices, yielding piano elegies such as To Our Knees. It is no surprise that their slocore morphs into the country-pop of Plastic Cup and Holy Ghost On the other hand, Tweedy injects a bit of energy into their slocore which results in unusually upbeat numbers such as So Blue and Just Make It Stop; and the mostly instrumental On My Own even boasts a stoner-rock guitar riff. The most vulnerable melodies, notably Four Score, evoke the Cowboy Junkies. Parker sings five songs. But the album fundamentally lacks both direction and inspiration.

Low experimented with electronic arrangements on Ones And Sixes (SubPop, 2015), produced by Bon Iver's collaborator BJ Burton. Low basically imported the digital productions of hip-hop music into their slocore apparatus. Gentle, sung jointly by Sparhawk and Parker, simply decorates their standard slocore melancholia with a low oscillating drone and a cheap drum-machine loop. Burton adds a digital beat and electronic effects to Parker's country-waltz elegy Into You. One can hear the influence of Retribution Gospel Choir in the loud and pounding No End and in the faster twang of Kid in the Corner; and the ten-minute Landslide owes something to the lengthy jams of 3, although it meanders and gets lost in a multitude of moods: hard-rocking, mournful, and finally dreamy stoned. And, out of nowhere, the duo intones the upbeat and soulful What Part of Me in a classic folk-rock style, a song that sounds out of context but dwarfs all the others.

Low tried to reinvent a career by hiding their slocore behind digital glitch arrangements on Double Negative (SubPop, 2018). Quorum is an overdose of static noise inside a pulsing haze, the instrumental The Son, The Sun is just three minutes of slowly-burning ambers of drones, Tempest is a heavily distorted lament, the voice made unrecognizable, and the two ecstatic voices of Always Up surrender to ghostly ambient drones. These are cheap tricks, although elegantly produced. Disarray is just a facile pop ditty disguised as intellectual experiments, Always Trying to Work It Out is just an old-fashioned slocore ballad, and Fly is a vulnerable pop-soul dirge. The electronic arrangements work mainly as distractions. However, a trio of songs justifies the hype. Dancing and Blood blends a metronomic industrial beat, Sparhawk's anemic chant and sweetly acoustic guitar to end with a feeble drone that sounds like an extraterrestrial transmission. Poor Sucker, the emotional peak, sounds like a religious hymn (reverbed as if sung between the walls of a monastery) with a beat that resembles the ticking of a clock. Rome sets in motion a slow chant and a martial beat in warped electronics but stops everything for a wildly distorted guitar break a` la post-Wall Pink Floyd. If the album's main attraction is the electronics, piloted by manipulator Steve Garrington, the weakest link remain Sparhawk's vocals.

After the glitchy-electronic orgy of Double Negative (2018), Low's Hey What (2021) feels like that album's poppy companion. The shamanic invocation White Horses and the trembling psalm I Can Wait are pop ballads relying on very traditional male-female vocal harmonies disguised behind a background of abrasive noise. The melody of Don't Walk Away sounds like a slow-motion version of the 18th century French song Plaisir d'Amour (or of its 20th century imitation, Elvis Presley's Can't Help Falling in Love). The previous album was mainly sung by Parker alone. The novelty here is that vocal harmonies predominate. The ethereal All Night and the syncopated, booming More hark back to the psychedelic lullabies of early Pink Floyd but without the genius of early Pink Floyd (and with endless repetitive codas). Despite the grating distortion, the electronic cloud that invades the eight-minute dreamy hymn Hey and the cosmic drones that lull the single Days Like These to sleep are close relatives of spiritual new-age music of the 1980s. There is a lot of repetition. In many cases the song has little or no evolution: it is simply a trivial melodic line repeated over and over again. Variety is delegated to the sound effects. The seven-minute pseudo-industrial elegy The Price You Pay crowns this parade of intellectual muzak, often sounding like a letargic, numb, distorted version of Cocteau Twins' dream-pop. Low have become followers of the false avantgarde of Radiohead with exactly the same pros (pleasant overall experience) and cons (irrelevance).

Mimi Parker died in 2022 of cancer at the age of 55.

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