Low, Secret Name [Tugboat]
When I recently played one of Low's earlier albums to my mother, she mistook it to be an early undiscovered Paul Simon record. There may be only a glimmer of similarity there, but Secret Name shows Low coming ever nearer to those uptempo, upbeat songs of despair. For those that haven't heard anything by Low before, they specialize in slow moving sparse song arrangements of guitar (Alan Spearhawk), bass (Zak Sally) and percussion (Mimi Parker). Rarely is there a change in key, nor does the tempo or pitch rise above freezing point. Such a recipe might get lesser musicians labelled dull and lifeless, but Low have special magic which sets their music well apart. Low's previous mini-album, Songs for a Dead Pilot took their concept to a logical extreme; using only a four track for recording and hanging songs on the thinest of skeletons made it possibly their least accessible work, a return to an embryonic state as it were. On Secret Name however, they've pulled back, relaxed, and have ended up with something altogether more listenable. Maybe Steve Albini's production may have been helpful in realising their goal. It's an album that sounds "just right" with nothing unnecessary added nor taken away, something I've always admired on other Albini-produced albums such as The Breeders' Pod. A few songs here are simply too beautiful and fragile: Weight of Water, sung by Mimi and backed by the Triple A string trio, is one of their most beautiful songs, and Immune one of their most upbeat. As a whole, the album manages to balance it's darkest moments (Don't Understand, for example) with more conventional songwriting (such as Soon, whose first part reminded me of my mother's comments). Some of the songs seem at odds with themselves; just when you though Alan was obssessing his feeling of misery, it turns out he's celebrating the geographical location of Missouri, for example. Can it be possible for Low to get any happier? Secret Name may turn out to be their best album so far, but I'm hoping that they can retain some of their characteristic restraint whilst continuing to smile not-so-secretly on the inside.
(Secret Name is available on Kranky in the US)