Low, "Things We Lost In The Fire" [Kranky]
When Low emerged from snowy Duluth, Minnesota with their 1994 Kramer-produced
debut, I Could Live in Hope, their trudging funeral marches, sparse
instrumentation, and Royal Albert Hall production values were strikingly fresh.
Though they were preceded in the slowcore movement by earlier innovators like
Galaxie 500 and Codeine, it was Low that defined the genre's sound.
Of course, by their third album, 1996's The Curtain Hits the Cast,
the formula began to wear thin. New producer Steve Fisk brought little to
the trio's sound, which remained virtually unchanged. While Low turned out
a few great songs on the record-- namely, "Anon," "Over the Ocean," and
"Lust"-- the near-Canadians failed to branch out, save for the 15-minute
jam session "Do You Know How to Waltz?"
Low began loosely experimenting on 1998's Songs for a Dead Pilot EP,
but returned to less adventurous songwriting the following year with the
full-length Secret Name. The album sported crisper, less dramatic
production, but failed to deviate from the concept the band had begun with
five years earlier. Regardless, the songs were of a similar caliber to those
on previous outings, and a whole legion of new fans sprung up.
Most newcomers haven't grown tired of Low's penchant for lethargy, since, to
this day, few bands have attempted what the Mormon Three have already perfected.
The closest runners-up may be New York's Ida; the two bands are often considered
contemporaries within the same genre. But this comparison belies one simple
backbone fact: Low rarely force themselves to sound beautiful. Instead, they
focus on building tension and atmosphere around sloth-paced pop songs, while
Ida witlessly water down their own country/folk influences with syrupy strings
and gaudy "prettiness." Vanity has never been Low's concern, and on Things
We Lost in the Fire, their humility has never been so affecting.
The opening track features a double-timed, pounding snare, a basic descending
chord structure, and the gratingly "nice" refrain, "You bought some sweet/
Sweet/ Sweet/ Sweet Sunflowers." But a more attentive listen reveals a new
lyrical direction. They've toned down the ambiguity and opted for creepy
surrealism: "When they found your body/ Giant x's on your eyes/ And with your
head for the ransom/ You bought some sweet sunflowers/ And gave in to the
Even if the British EP hadn't been available since last year, "Dinosaur Act"
would stand out as the obvious single. Mimi Parker's tiny snare drum is
squashed beneath pummeling tympani like the song's prehistoric namesake, as
frontman Alan Sparhawk closes the song's final chorus with a shouted "Dinosaur!"
But In the Fire's finest moments come just as the album draws to a
close. On "Like a Forest," the band dig themselves out of their somber rut
to briefly uplift; the track is paced at nearly twice the speed of their other
pieces, and seems generally optimistic, if lyrically vague. "Like a Forest"
is filled out with an economy-size string section produced to sound incredibly
dense. But rather than overwhelming the song with soaring drama, the strings
are incorporated conservatively low in the mix, and generate a warm hum for
the sake of ambience. Meanwhile, a lone plinking piano note keeps pace
alongside Parker's snapping percussion. Were "Like a Forest" the only Low
song you'd ever heard, it's unlikely you'd suspect its somewhat psychedelic
chord structure and absolutely engaging, see-sawing vocals were the product
of the progenitors of slowcore.
"In Metal" is a simply crushing Parker-sung ode to she and Sparhawk's new
baby, Hollis. Parker's chilling voice, as she confesses her hopeless longing
for the child to stay small forever, simultaneously attains both heartbreakingly
desperation and jubilance: "Partly hate to see you grow/ And just like your baby
shoes/ Wish I could keep your little body/ In metal." There's a bizarre David
Lynch quality to the concept of immortalizing a baby in some kind of Han Solo
freeze that prevents the song from crossing over into blatant sentimentalism.
But Parker's affection for the child, who can be heard squeaking at low levels
during the song's first verse, is not feigned. The song serves as a flawless
finale, to the point that it can alter your view of the album as a whole.
In truth, the whole of Things We Lost in the Fire rarely equals the
impact of "In Metal," and at many points, even floats out of immediate
consciousness to dwell in pits of mediocrity. "Whitetail," despite spectacular
brushed cymbal loops and effects, flounders aimlessly for more than five
dragging minutes; "Laser Beam" is beyond minimal, with just Parker singing
quietly over pausing guitar; "Embrace" is painfully melodramatic as Parker
spouts such ridiculousness as "I fell down the stairs/ I wished I were dead";
and the 49 second-long untitled track that precedes "In Metal" plays like a
manufacturing error that accidentally caught a portion of labelmates Windy &
Still, Things We Lost in the Fire's high points are, without question,
the best they've done. An endless list of studio guests-- including ex-Soul
Cougher Mark D'gli Antoni on piano and sampler, trumpeting by Bob Weston, and
impeccable production by one Steve Albini-- certainly add to the enjoyment.
But above all else, it's Low's willingness to finally live up to their Kranky
cohorts by experimenting with ambient textures, eerie tension, and advanced
songwriting methods that saves this from being yet another I Could Live in
Hope. Here's hoping they get even weirder.
Things We Lost in the Fire on Amazon.com