[23 February 2006]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
There it is, the dreaded word: “slowcore.” That special little word that can conjure up heart-worn joy or that faint little taste of vomit in the back of your mouth. It’s that special sub-genre where you’ll rarely find the words “upbeat” floating around (or even “mid-tempo”, for that matter). Slowcore is slow—it’s patient, never rushes things, and winds up crawling into your skin all the more. Yet there’s one thing about this little sub-genre: it is so easy to screw it up. That emo kid across the street from you could be recording a slowcore album right now, using single-string guitar plucks and expanding them out into 12-minute epics of boredom. As uninteresting as that sounds, it can at least put you to sleep in seconds flat.
Enter Chicago’s Low Skies. Formed in 2000, this group performs slowcore style with a heavy alt-country bent (imagine Explosions in the Sky with a bit of twang). Their 2003 debut, The Bed, was very much a story-song affair, sometimes sounding as if Sonic Youth had gotten hold of a slide guitar, other times focusing less on melody and more on atmosphere and lyrics. So it comes as a slight bit of a surprise that All the Love I Could Find is as straightforward as it is. Certainly, there are a lot of atmospherics going on, but they’re wrapped in simple and memorable hooks. They still indulge in tendencies that groups like Sigur Ros and the aforementioned Explosions do, which means reaching out for the epic, though here they feel a bit more constrained, cutting down from two seven-minute stretches to just one on this release. One could go as far as to say that they’re focusing more towards pop elements… when in fact they’re just focusing their sound, to great effect.
Given the limits of slowcore, the band seems more than happy to throw more than a few twists into the bend, as on “Levelling”, which briefly erupts into a crashing wave of reverb guitars before bringing in a faint Cake-like keyboard sound that’s only barely audible. The brilliant opener “Stone Mountain” proves to be perfectly placed: riding a giant canyon-like bass that appears at its own leisure, the song soon evolves with its mellow guitar lines and meandering keyboards. The build is slow and gradual, but it pays off—and if you like “Stone Mountain”, then the rest of the album is nothing but a treat. If there’s any one downside (aside from the fact that “Sweet Young Girls” has the weakest melody on the album), it is the very fact that in terms of mood, few songs vary from the opening tracks—this dark, middle-of-nowhere sound is a bit repetitive in nature (some will obviously be screaming for a bit more diversity than the occasional harmonica thrown in for good measure). Yet unlike today’s three-minute, radio-jingle-ready pop LPs that you see in droves on any Best Buy music aisle, Low Skies offer something that few major-label acts can actually lay claim to: Here we don’t have a collection of singles—here we have an album.
Throughout all of this, it is very easy to let Christopher Salveter’s voice simply wash over you like the rest of the music, but to do that would be missing one of the most important elements of the Low Skies: the lyrics. While their first album featured mournful anti-ballads and tumbleweed murder tales, here is an album that is flat-out about regret. No story songs here, just countless and painful tales of lost love. Salveter should be praised for reminding us that there was a time when, lyrically, less could be more. No better are the opening lines of “Torture”: “It’s torture each time you turn / Cause I can’t touch a sleeping girl”. In a few words he captures desire, wanting, and ultimately respect for the one you love. At times, the words can venture into surrealism, as on “You Can’t Help Those People” (most notably “Tattooed sin / On my inner lip with barbed wire / Do the boys in drag make you sick / Or do they turn you on like basement fires?”). By the time one reaches the midpoint of “The Cause of It”, it can be overwhelming—both musically and lyrically—because this is a breakup song bar-none (“I want it to feel like before but how it was I couldn’t tell you / Was I meant to be a constant wreck and not know?”).
It’s too early to say that this is a masterpiece of atmospheric post-rock. It’s too early to tell if this album will be a full-on success. However, we’re at a point where we can say this: The next time you’re nostalgic for love, the road is open and the sky is closed, there’s a soundtrack already made for you.