The frigid psychology of Low
It was a surreal experience, interviewing the band Low as the musicians ate burritos at a restaurant on Kirkwood on homecoming eve. Singer-guitarist Alan Sparhawk explained to me how he thought they should open a burrito shop in their hometown -- apparently the town was lacking. I had sought the band out to clear up a few questions I had. It turns out that they were as enigmatic and normal as I could have hoped.
Low is a trio from Duluth, Minn., made up of Sparhawk, his wife Mimi Parker on drums and vocals, and Zak Sally on bass and vocals. Last month, they released their 10th full-length album, Trust.
Writers often find themselves conjuring up tasty metaphors to describe Low's sound, often comparing the band to frozen lakes and black forests. Truth be told, Low is slow, methodical and deliberate to the extreme of those words' connotations. The band's melodies come around gradually and hypnotically in a way usually reserved for Icelandic techno groups.
Parker plays at her sparse drum set (a tom, snare and single cymbal) standing up. Her simple beats are indiscernibly intertwined with Sally's bass. Sparhawk plays his guitar in an open tuning like a Delta blues player minus the slide. Parker and Sparhawk's harmonies remain uncomfortably close (usually only a minor or major 3rd apart) as their voices plot arduously along.
Trust features the group's hallmark sound, along with elegiac production flares. Coming on the heels of 2001's masterful Things We Lost in the Fire, Trust can become confusing compared to the former album's cohesive structure. The new album trades off sweeping, epic songs with unsubstantial mid-tempo numbers and ballads.
I knew, though, that the album's opening track, "That's How We Sing Amazing Grace" was the group's capo lavoro when my friend was startled by its sound one night.
"This is bullshit," she cried.
"Speak for yourself, Ferdinand."
It was only later in my recoil that I found out she was awakened by the song and believed she was stuck in her nightmare.
The song starts out with a distant whistle, reminiscent of "Children of the Corn." The song then falls into a drumbeat that attempts to make the snare sound like a timpani by adding too much echo. Out of nowhere, Sparhawk and Parker sing the first lines, "I knew this girl when I was young / She took her spikes from everyone / One night she swallowed up the lake / That's how we sing 'Amazing Grace'." The song's mood recalls Robert Johnson's "Hellhound on My Trail" ("I can tell the wind is risin' / the leaves are tremblin' on the tree"), with its foreboding nature and doomsday calls.
"It's about 'Amazing Grace'," Sparhawk says. "The first verse and the chorus kind of came at the same time, and I was trying to figure out what they meant together. You think of 'Amazing Grace,' you think immediately of somebody swallowing up a lake, so to speak, or dying. That's kind of what this record is about, coming to terms with things ending. I really don't think that death is as morbid a thing … it's part of life."
If you've listened to Low's records, you might wonder, as I did, what such a caliginous and cryptic band has on its mind.
"Do you guys ever have the desire to not be so deliberate?" I ask.
Sally replies as if he were attacked, "Deliberate?"
"Well, after a show, do you listen to metal or bebop?"
"We listen to nothing," Parker chimes in for the first and only time.
"We listen to nothing or everything," Sparhawk says politically. "I mean, we don't just play this kind of music and sit around in dark corners all day."
Sally adds, "Sometimes I think we could loosen up or lose some of our deliberateness. Actually, I think it took us quite a few years to realize that those two things don't mix."
Greil Marcus once wrote of Low, "This notoriously unhurried trio captures the insignificance of human desire as opposed to the fact of a Minnesota winter even as they suggest they might prefer that the weather never change at all."
In a blink of an eye, the band was gone from the stage at Rhino's last weekend. Like the last time I had seen them in Chicago, I couldn't remember a thing about what happened at the concert -- it had all seemed like some filthy nightmare. I once heard a piece of paper hit the ground mid-song. The only thing that had brought me back down to earth was when Sally or Sparhawk spoke on stage. They didn't say anything of significance, it was merely banter, but its effect was like an air-raid siren.
-- Michael Tapscott
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