Low - review of Trust
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Low, Trust [Kranky]
Rating: 6.5

from Pitchfork, Monday, 30 September 2002

After eight years of refining and perfecting the essence of that plodding, murky genre known as "slowcore", Low have worked up quite a backstory. With tools provided by Galaxie 500, Red House Painters, and Spacemen 3, their first two albums, 1994's I Could Live in Hope and 1995's Long Division, drew the blueprint for slowcore as we know it today. They are the pioneers of a genre of limited variables-- where innovating artists who drift too far to the left become "drone" or "psychedelic", and those who drift to the right find themselves labeled "dream-pop" or "shoegazer"-- which bloomed in the mid-to-late 90s, but now seems somewhat short on ideas.

The band, of course, hasn't let this hold them back. Critics have been waiting to pounce since 1997, after their first three undeniably solid, yet painfully uniform, albums had sunk in. Then, Low switched from the Vernon Yard label to Chicago-based experimental imprint Kranky and released the unexpected Songs for a Dead Pilot EP, which saw them toying with a whole new arsenal of unpredicted elements, and greatly broadening their field of vision. But after this stark contrast to their previous releases, fans expecting the band to continue branching out were somewhat disappointed by Secret Name, which failed to deviate much from paths the band had already explored. And some feared this would, in fact, be the end of the road for the good-natured trio from Minnesota's northeast. Yet, despite this, their songcraft remained intact-- but this in itself was also a problem: though their songwriting had never been comprised, it had never really developed much, either. Hence, their albums up to this point were virtually interchangeable, none any better or worse than the others.

And then came 2001's Things We Lost in the Fire. Low, it seemed, had suddenly realized that their songwriting could not sustain with reverb alone, and hired producer Steve Albini and a group of contributors with more explorative backgrounds, resulting in their freshest-sounding album to date. One would expect this to carry over to their follow-up, the newly released Trust. In fact, it doesn't. Only now do Low seem to be struggling with the constraints of their genre. The album preserves their defining qualities: superb lyricism and powerful tension. But it's missing two key elements of Low's last outing. That is, the engaging songs and captivating production.

The ever-cautious pace and utter minimalism of slowcore can make for a grindingly protracted listening experience when the songs aren't up to snuff. And on Trust, for the first time in Low's long career, they aren't. The band's delivery is dispassionate and inert, and the deep mood swings that have typified some of their best outings-- the spiritual highs and dramatic depths-- are entirely absent. To the band's credit, it's evident that they were at least making an effort: "I Am The Lamb", for example, attempts to draw electricity from the clunky, hollow footsteps of clattering percussion, while vocalist Alan Sparhawk provides a dirgeful minor-key melody atop the mélange, accompanied by a funerary chorus. Unfortunately, neither his melody, nor the building force in the percussion, ever reaches the palpable intensity toward which it was clearly aiming, leaving the song to drag lifelessly towards its obvious conclusion for an exhausting seven minutes. Later, "John Prine" meets a similar fate, crawling along with a languid bass drum pounding ceaselessly with little-to-no variation over roughly the same timespan.

The influence of producer Tchad Blake, formerly one-half of a production team with Mitchell Froom responsible for some of the most unique-sounding records of the 1990s (Soul Coughing's Ruby Vroom, Cibo Matto's Viva la Woman, American Music Club's Mercury) is everywhere, from the twangy "Twin Peaks"-style guitar effects, to the tower bells, to the effects that coat Sparhawk's vocals. But Blake's greatest mistake here is simply overcompensating. Low's hallmark, even on Things We Lost in the Fire, has always been minimalism, and Blake's innumerable clatters and noises do little but distract from the centerpieces and lend an inappropriate big-budget gloss.

So let's talk now about what Trust actually has going for it: Low makes a welcome foray into the world of tempo-- and with some success, even-- on "Canada", which is about as close as Low will likely ever come to a call-and-response anthem. The tune, a wistfully poppy, fuzzed-out rock number, features Sparhawk on lead with Mimi Parker on echo, for a delightful sort of "psychedelic-Breeders" effect. "Snowstorm" tones the fuzz down a notch, but keeps the cheery attitude for a pretty pleasurable pop track. At other points, such as on the percussionless folk-lullaby "Tonight" and the gorgeous, gospel-inflected "Point of Disgust", Low beautifully revisit more of their well-worn old ground, again neither improving nor altering the formula-- just doing it well, as always.

But despite Trust's striking moments, the album as a whole fails to engage. Whatever intensity might be inherent in these songs is, for the most part, left untapped by Blake's production, and the resulting soundscapes lumber along with a stoic demeanor that leaves the listener unmoved. You won't mind owning this album-- you probably won't even mind listening to it-- but if you want more Low in your collection, your money would be better spent on one of their others.

-- Brad Haywood, September 30th, 2002


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