Sweet and Low|
Once the lo-fi antidote to grunge, Low do loud as well as quiet these days -- and their latest album is gorgeous, says MARK EDWARDS
The one thing we know for sure about the modern world is that everything keeps getting faster. Even the speed at which everything keeps getting faster keeps getting faster. And then there's Low. A three-piece band from Duluth, Minnesota (previously known in music circles for the fact that Dylan was raised in nearby Hibbing), Low began life a decade ago when grunge ruled the earth. But at a time when loud, fast music was all the rage, Low chose to play slowly and quietly.
"I'd been in a few rock bands trying to become part of that excitement that was going on with grunge," says the guitarist-singer Alan Sparhawk, "but, at some point, I became disgusted with that idea, and decided to just play music that I really liked, music that I could play with my wife."
Sparhawk's wife is Mimi Parker, who sings and plays drums so sparsely that she makes the Velvet Underground's Mo Tucker sound like Keith Moon. The third member of Low is the bassist Zak Sally. Together, they have just made Trust, the latest in a string of wonderful albums that established Low as one of the most critically acclaimed bands in the world.
Originally, Sparhawk admits, the band were intrigued with the idea of playing music that they knew a large part of any grunge-primed audience would hate. "But what started out as a perverse twist on the fashions of the time quickly became something we realised our hearts were really in."
And what may sound like a gimmick turned into some of the most beautiful music being made today. Low's music isn't just slow and quiet. It's also astonishingly powerful. Think of Low's music as the aural equivalent of a Rothko painting. Nothing much happens, but everything that does happen, happens perfectly. It's very intense music to play, very meticulous," says Sparhawk. "If you're only going to play one note every 20 seconds, you'd better make sure it's the right note and that you play it in the right way."
After a few years of fighting audience expectations, Low realised that they had built an audience that actually wanted to listen to them. "Before, it had been about challenging the audience, grating against the norm. Then it became less and less about how slow can we play and more and more about how to write good songs."
The first phase of Low's career culminated with 1999's Secret Name -- the epitome of their slow, quiet sound. This was followed by a Christmas album -- the best anyone has made since Phil Spector (you may have heard their version of Little Drummer Boy on a Gap ad). And then the band began to experiment. With the Nirvana producer Steve Albini at the controls, they turned their instruments up loud on last year's Things We Lost in the Fire.
You can hear both sides of Low on Trust. The opening track -- That's How You Sing Amazing Grace -- looms like a mist, slowly surrounding you, while Sparhawk and Parker's trademark harmonies hover on top. Songs like this are routinely described as hymn-like by critics -- partly because of their stately progress, partly because Sparhawk and Parker are both Mormons, but mostly because Low's music is unashamedly spiritual. If you can only slow down to Low's pace, it will reach you on a level that you'd almost forgotten music could reach.
And then they'll play an almost conventional rock song like Canada. "We've been playing our way for so long that a song like Canada -- just strumming three chords -- I found extremely, comically difficult," confesses Sparhawk. "You can hear us barely clinging to the smallest thread of togetherness."
"Think of their music as the aural equivalent of a Rothko."
Sparhawk hadn't thought too much about his lyrics until he had to sit down and type them all out to send to Low's Japanese record label. "That's always the moment of truth," he says. "That's when you find out what you've been thinking about. I noticed that the tone sometimes feels like an old man -- here's some mistakes I've made, here's some things that happened to me, here's some things I want you to remember."
He attributes this tone to the arrival of Hollis Mae, his and Parker's daughter, now 2 1/2. "Being a parent is a big factor. There's a part of you that ends when you see yourself through another life. She's taking over now. I feel much more accountable for my life. Life is so important: why did I spend all those years being so vague, so unsure? It makes us a little more bold: what do we need to say in this song? Okay, let's get straight to the point. There's only so much time, and nobody listens to the lyrics anyway."
Sparhawk moves quickly from self-deprecation to self-doubt: "But then maybe what people like about us is that we beat about the bush. Now maybe we won't be as much fun. Who wants someone telling you what to think? Maybe they'd rather hear some vague story about the whispering wind."
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