Trust and I Could Live in Hope
Patient listeners are a rarity in any time period, but bands like Low are always going to be in a hard category to define. It’s not that this is just some slow music, but it is also beautiful, haunting, atmospheric, meaningful, and majestic. Hailing from Duluth, MN one of the most northern places in the continental US, the kind of chemistry here paints a tundra that slow footsteps are then inserted on. Alan Sparhawk is great at making sense of this, he needs space to create his long intricate guitar jams and he has help of one of the best female singers in existence, the great Mimi Parker, to join him. Alan and Mimi together singing takes on a special place in music, much like Grace Slick and Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane, they hold long notes out and until the voices truly blend as one.
The influences of Low are somewhat obvious: the trance-like guitar jams of Neil Young, the slowcore music pioneered by Codine and Galaxie 500, the religious rock music made by Jefferson Airplane or Marvin Gaye. But they take these influences and do far more than emulate; they pour it into new kinds of music all together. Listen to some of their greatest songs: “Whitetail”, “Fear”, “Caroline”, “Lullaby”, “Starfire”, even the Christmas jingle “Just Like Christmas.” Best of all, Low have four pretty much perfect albums. They come in two and are back to back, 1994-1995 I Could Live In Hope and Long Division, and 2001-2002 Trust and I Could Live in Hope. I’m not sure there is a single note of their albums I would change. There are many other great gems to be found thought their 13 album catalogue, always inventive and I don’t believe a single swear word is ever uttered. Imagine that, rock n’ roll that is truly friendly.
But still, some people will avoid Low because they are hard to get into at first, which I agree they are! But once you hear a Low record, it takes you to a different world, where heaven and earth are connected by a bridge, where paradise might be just around the corner. Then again, it might not be, and therein lies the most prominent element in the music: mystery and wonder.
1994 – *****+ – I Could Live in Hope
1995 – ***** – Long Division
1996 – ***1/2 – The Curtain Hits the Cast
1999 – **** – Secret Name
2001 – ***** – Things We Lost in the Fire
2002 – *****+ – Trust
2005 – **** – The Great Destroyer
2007 – *** – Drums and Guns
2011 – **** – Cmon
2013 – ** – Invisible Way
2015 – ****1/2 – Ones and Sixes
2018 – ***1/2 – Double Negative
2021 – ****1/2 – Hey What
The band’s first foray in rock music changes the entire logic of what a rock song is. In many ways, the music made by Low does not “rock” it simply slowly observes the world. Songs like “Lullaby” (a nine minute epic building into a very memorable guitar repetition that echoes and echoes) and “Fear” (a simple, tragic, haunting tune whose lyrics contain a thousand meanings) are some of the best tunes ever coined by any group. Sparhawk’s vocals mimic his astrological guitar plucking, rarely do we ever hear chords it’s more like solemn arpeggios repeated over and over until they drill a place into your mind. Even on shorter tracks like “Sea” and their cover of “(You are my) Sunshine” leave brain freezing effects.
Some very accessible and original tracks can be found here, with “Lazy”, “Drag” and “Cut” being strange little melodic gems that mark a good entry point into the band. Mimi Parker takes control of the vocals a couple of times, with the already mentioned “Lullaby” being the highlight, but also the moody “Slide” which echoes the isolation of Linda Thompson at her best. Parker’s minimal drumming style- mainly brushes or mallets on only cymbal, snare, and tom- helps set Low apart too. Each song could potentially go on forever, and some that do go on over five minutes, like the controlled chaos of “Down” and the angst of “Rope” – find that unique area that most band would fill with distortion and noise but Low always leave lots of silence and space, making each moment count and seem important.
A perfectly sequenced record, flawless debut, expertly produced by Kramer. Every song is vital and is a charming piece of the larger puzzle. Low may be labeled “slowcore” but in reality, they just make beautiful music seem effortless.
Highlights: “Rope”, “Lullaby, “Lazy, “Fear” – perhaps my favorite song ever.
Long Division – *****
Long Division expands the band’s sound ever so slightly. They double down on what they do best- the languid vocal harmonies on “Caroline “, Parkers solemn slightly judgmental and prophetic verses on “Below and Above”, the crisp long phrases of “Violence” which is another just perfect song (note how long they hold out the notes – both Sparhawk and Parker are trained singers. “Turn” takes music to a grinding halt, as absolutely slow as in can be and still be called ‘rock’, while adding a huge psychedelic presence from the afterlife.
They are even more accessible this time around too, “Swinging” could be a modern 90s Neil Young tune off of Sleeps With Angels, as the lyrics are clever and singular, ” She’s a sinker/ I should have taught her how to swim.” Also on “Throw Out the Line”, we are transfixed by every word the two singers utter in perfect unison.
Perhaps the last couple songs are superfluous, except the excellent “Take” which I think is a perfect moody album closer, but still noting is bad here and the first 2/3 are stellar. Mark Kramer ‘s final bit of production for Low, he really makes every note sound like its important, he brings out the most he can out of their minimalist style. Once more, Low and Kramer make this look easy.
The Curtain Hits the Cast – ***1/2
It may seem a mystery at first as to why I give this album a mediocre rating while saying I like eight out of eleven songs, but I’ll get to that. Curtain Hits the Cast displays a band not quite knowing where to go with its sound. The mood is calmer than the previous two records, Long Division and I Could Live in Hope, both of which were absolute masterworks. There are some great songs to come out of this softer more contemplative fusion of slow and atmospheric rock: “The Plan” is a simple recitation of feelings towards a loved one; “Over the Ocean” builds into something stunningly beautiful; “Coattails” is all emotion with real literal point, but it’s the best song on here with a simple guitar part that boggles the mind. All of these songs favor FEELING over RELEVANCY, making this a unique record on its own terms.
Here is the problem: when doing an album that is all “emotion”, it could easily go nowhere. Two of the longest songs, “Laugh” and “Do You Know how to Waltz”, do just that. What you are stuck with there is about twenty five minutes of boring music, and while I can almost applaud its courage in just being, well, “soft guitar noise”, I can’t really do that because it is so lame. I mean, it almost takes you into a world of bliss, but not quite. When a record lasts 65 minutes and 25 of it doesn’t work at all, it hurts the album greatly. On top of those failures, “Mom Says” is just a lame Low song. The rest of the five songs I haven’t mentioned all make some good points, but give an indication of future greatness rather than offering much now. The band is not really out of ideas on The Curtain Hits the Cast you see, it just doesn’t know what to do with the ideas it has left over. This is still an intriguing record for the die hard fan, but far from an example of how good Low is.
Secret Name – ****
The band’s 4th album proper and the first with Steve Albini producing, Secret Name is a step in the right direction for the band. Certain songs stand out above the others for sure, but it feels more of a whole piece as anything they have done since Long Division. Different types of songs pop up, it is not front loaded, and there is plenty to discover along the way. “Don’t Understand” is the most tribal and intense Low song of the 1990s, a true vision of the apocalypse inside Sparhawk’s mind. “I Remember” is a perfect opener, all building tension aching to be released. “Will the Night” is back with actual words this time, and there is truly a beautiful melody that plays like a bedtime story on top of the former uneventful ambient version form the Dead Pilot EP. Closer “Home” ends to proceedings on an ominous note, the pounding bass part underpinning, contrary to most band’s would have it super distorted.
The hope and maturity Low shows on this album shows an unlimited potential: “Starfire” takes a Neil Young inspired vocal performance and adds class and depth, building to an excellent climax like a miniature version of “Caroline” from Long Division; “Immune” is the most commercial the band has ever sounded, but its hardly a sell out as it plays right into their mid-tempo strengths; “Two Step” is also perhaps Parker’s best song to date, creating a waltz song for the ages that changes half way through to something truly moving. Other good tunes throughout like “Missouri” (having fun with the song title) and “Lion/Lamb” also sound pristine and soul searching, a nice counter-polar to the usual darkness of the band’s many dirges. This new aspect of their sound just might bring the band to new heights in the future, and Secret Name is a really good album and worth exploring.