Middle East, Cambridge, MA
Saturday, 14 September 1996
I try not to contribute to the lamentable choir of people who have yet to expend a quarter of their reasonable life expectancy (I assume I'll live to be at least 120) complaining about the effects of advancing age, but this week I am feeling a little older than usual. Half of this is the leg injury I sustained playing soccer last weekend, when something unpleasant happened in my hip as I went to take a goal kick. The other half is all the concerts I allowed myself to miss with the injury as a flimsy excuse (flimsy because it doesn't hurt to stand on the leg, and it would be surprising if attending a concert were to require that I take another goal kick): Sleeper, Kevin Salem, the Cardigans and the Nields, all bands I would have liked to have seen and handed copies of my reviews of their records to. I find, however, that my tolerance for events that involve standing up for several consecutive hours anyplace without enough light to read in is not at all what it once was, and so even in injury-free weeks (i.e., ones not during soccer season) it takes the promise of something remarkable to galvanize me into action.
And after a week of near misses, Saturday finally offered a compelling possibility, as Low, whose new album The Curtain Hits the Cast I'd been enjoying for a few weeks as I waited for something else to review it with, came through for an appearance at Cambridge's least dilapidated rock venue, the ex-bowling-alley downstairs room at the Middle East. I mainly felt I had to go because I couldn't even vaguely imagine how the band would translate their stupefyingly low-energy album presence into a concert setting. Half of me feared that due to some religious strictures about amplification and the worshipping of icons they'd be totally inaudible, and performing behind an opaque screen. The other half feared that, quite the contrary, in concert they'd be irrepressibly cheerful and play mostly "Stray Cat Strut" rockabilly and improvisational bar-boogie.
Instead, here is what Low is like in concert. There are three of them. Mimi Parker's drums are set up in the back, center, in the traditional drum-kit location, but her "kit" consists solely of a floor tom, a snare and a cymbal, which she stands beside with the gravity of a secret service agent attending a President's funeral. If she made eye contact with the audience once during the band's hour-plus set, it was by way of a system of concealed mirrors attached to her shoes that I could not make out from my vantage point twenty feet away. Much of the time she just stands there. Some of the songs require that she act as percussionist, and for these she sets up a brushed or malleted rhythm with the mechanical regularity of a travel alarm's second hand, only without the breakneck pace. Her three strike targets are used almost exclusively in no more than pairs: metronomic brush cymbal hisses accented by snare taps on the ninth and thirteenth of sixteen unhurried beats, say; widely separated floor-tom strokes with a muted cymbal splash at the song's midway point; or else just a cymbal tick, marking the revolutions of some radio galaxy that only she can directly perceive. When she is not needed, she stands. A few songs have vocal parts for her, and for these she leans forward just slightly, towards her microphone, and sings with an absence of expressive zeal that, if she were a domesticated animal, would have you worriedly on the phone to your vet. I can think of only a few examples of conscious human beings who I've seen exert less physical effort over comparable amounts of time, and all of them involved IVs in one way or another.
To Mimi's left (or your right as you face her, since she is unlikely to face you) is Zak Sally, Low's bass player. Of the three he is undoubtably the most active, as the keel of most Low songs is a pulsing bass line. Slow pulses, admittedly, and Zak doesn't necessarily have to switch frets very often, but still, his notes outnumber Mimi's by a factor of four even on her most frantic numbers, and by eight or sixteen on the others. Perhaps due to self-consciousness about this display of floridity, Zak faces backwards while playing, his gaze fixed, I guess, on the same mirrors on Mimi's shoes that Mimi watches. He turns toward his left at the beginnings of songs, but that's all.
To his left, receiving the sidelong glances, which are ostensibly for synchronization, though at the speed these songs move precise start times seem relatively unimportant, is Low's guitar player and other singer, Alan Sparhawk. On a few songs he does manage to work up a minor reverberant racket, but as often his guitar participation consists as much of gesturing at the instrument as of actually playing it. His singing, in an impulse-power-only falsetto, seems to be a product of the observation that if the air flowing through your lips can be reduced to a trace quantity, it's practically impossible for your voice to crack.
Assembled, these parts make for a minimalist ensemble experience that threatens to defy the term "live". Sparhawk apologized, at one point, for playing so many long songs, but Low's short songs aren't faster, they're just shorter. As the show progressed, a significant fraction of the crowd wandered distractedly away from the stage, and began carrying on conversations in the rest of the room that rivaled the music for volume. The dwindling group of the undaunted, mesmerized by the band's faint glimmer, drew conspiratorily closer, myself among them (and I noticed Linda Jung and Sean O'Brien of Curious Ritual rooted to the second row). Some people obviously find Low somnambulant, and some find them riveting. Personally, I find the sheer determination in their torpor to be utterly fascinating. Their songs are so slow, and so spare, that it seems unthinkable that the facade won't eventually crack, and they'll break into spasms of noisy disintegration, but it never happens.
On record, the effect isn't quite as severe. Without the band standing in front of you to reinforce how little is literally happening, it's easy to not actively notice who isn't playing when. There are a few keyboards on the album, also, which aren't present on stage, and they help fill in the musical spaces just a little, as do a few scattered moments of double-tracked Parker auto-harmonies. The fundamental aesthetic, however, is unchanged. You know those dreams you have where it takes every ounce of effort to move your foot forward an inch (usually as a python wearing an askew party hat slithers toward you; or are those just my dreams)? Low is the Cowboy Junkies having that dream. Or Mecca Normal when David and Jean dream that they are ghosts. Or a Mark Hollis nightmare in which somebody accidentally erased tracks 4-48 of the Spirit of Eden masters. These songs are the sound of an empty room shifting as its building settles. They are the musing of stone immortals on their day off. They are the soundtrack to race glaciers by, bedtime songs sung by diamonds, to calm tortoises.
This, in itself, would already be remarkable. There is almost no other pop music this gradual, and what little else I can think of, like Brian Eno's Music for Airports, is synthetic enough that the time-frame ceases to be that spectacular. Anybody can make a machine drag a note out for a minute, just by thumbing the tempo wheel a few times; Low's genius is the ability to manipulate their own metabolisms, and yours, in a way that is only inhuman, not non-human. Hearing words drawn out this way, and thoughts, is a wholly different experience than D50 sighing quantized to half-hours. On Long Division, Low's last album, Kramer was unable to resist processing the drums and vocals for presence, and echoing the guitars and voices a little to create some extra animation, but Steve Fisk, this album's producer, seems to realize that these aren't intended to be Luna songs, and so lets everything be what it is. If "Do You Know How to Waltz?" wants to be fifteen minutes long, let it. If nobody is playing a note, wait patiently for the next one. If Alan sounds like Lou Barlow on his deathbed, and Mimi like she hasn't eaten in a month, that's no reason to try to turn them into Richard and Linda. When they sing together, it sounds like the words are simply too heavy for either to carry unassisted. Rather than trying to airbrush out their burden, The Curtain Hits the Cast draws closer, to see what it is they struggle to bring us.
And there, in the words, is the other thing that, to me, makes Low unnerving and inspiring. Given the music, you'd expect the lyrics to be indistinct blurs of reverent pseudo-Latin, or an alternate dialect of the Cocteau Twins' invented tongue, or something similarly atmospheric. Instead, Low's lyrics are inexplicable, but evocative, thought fragments that might have dropped out of a passing They Might Be Giants notebook that was having a bad week. Not counting the repetitions in the extended fade-out, the entire text of "The Plan" is "On the step you handed me pieces of the plan. Can I hold it for a week?" Before it deteriorates into rounds of "I don't know", "Mom Says" observes something like "Mom says the astronauts are bringing Tom, but I don't know. Mom says the car won't make it to the lake of, but I don't know. Mom says a farm's the best place to call home, but I don't know", and right at the end, after minutes of coda, it adds "Mom says we ruined her body", and for once the narrator doesn't protest. Even more sinister is "Same"'s harrowing admission "I'm tired of waking up with the same clothes and the same holes in my skin." The answer, though, I think, is not perforation but self-awareness. Low suggests that change, and perhaps salvation, might come from the very routines against which we think we strain, and the cages in which we think we pace. Perhaps we just haven't stared at them long enough to understand how the routines are discovery, and the cages worlds. Or realized that eyes and ears can be new ways out of our old skin.
glenn mcdonald (copyright 1996)
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