Whenever the conversation shifts to a discussion of Low—which doesn’t happen that often, but anyway—my big-brotherly instincts always kick in. Most criticisms of the Duluth, Minnesota, trio play out roughly the same: sure, the music is good, but they’re too depressing.
Leave ‘em alone, I think. They’re not depressing, they’re introspective. They sing from the heart, and if their hearts don’t always feel like singing about rainbows and unicorns and other things your feeble mind can understand, that’s not their fault. Besides, who are you to call them too depressing? Maybe you should take a good look at yourself, huh? Yeah, take a long, hard look and get back to me with this “too depressing” crap. You’re lucky I don’t clean your clock free of charge.
I’ve never actually come to blows because of Low—it’s probably safe to say that Low has never, ever caused anyone to come to blows. Still, I can’t help but get more defensive when somebody puts Low down than when they put down another random indie band.
Perhaps it’s because I’ve never viewed them as anything but uplifting. The way Alan Sparhawk’s introverted tenor wraps itself around wife Mimi Parker’s lilting alto is soft, warm and enveloping. The atmospheric snare and timpani drums do not fight with the pensive guitar and deliberate bass for attention; rather, they embrace each other.
The resulting slow-motion soundscapes—especially when recorded by Steve Albini—are harmonious, soft and, yes, slow. Even when a sinister undertone pervades the sweet harmonies, what we hear is not depressing by the literal translation of the word, which connotes an area in feeling or whatever else that is lower than normal. They are, to borrow author William Styron’s description of his own clinical depression, sounds of melancholia. The tone Low sets is complete and encompassing, not simply a dip in the road.
Yet, it is therapeutic melancholia. It fills in the ambiguous areas in your psyche, the feelings that you can’t quite put your finger on, and makes you feel whole, even if only for fleeting moments. When you’re feeling down, it leaves you feeling renewed, as if you just had a pocket full of your own mysteries revealed to you. They’re not depressing, I keep telling people, they’re just misunderstood. You’ll see.
In the past couple of years Low have seemingly set out to truly make people see that they have more up their sleeves than an endless supply of slow-burn masterpieces. On CD, the trio have supplemented themselves with a string quartet and horns, which finally give Sparhawk’s and Parker’s harmonizing a worthy accompaniment. Sparhawk has also increasingly taken to an acoustic guitar, which better matches the fragility in his own voice and provides a respite from the downbeat slashes to his electric guitar. They’ve even thrown in hesitant piano playing, as well as an occasional hypnotic loop.
All of these flourishes are beautiful, but half of them are also prohibitively expensive to take on the road. Fortunately, Low’s greatest strengths—their harmonies—don’t require augmentation. And though Parker had some difficulty hitting the highest notes at the Bowery Ballroom for the first night of a two-night stand in New York City, there was hardly a throwaway moment all night long.
Watching the band go through much of its new material brought on another kind of big-brotherly instinct. As perfectly content as I may be to hear Low remake 1996’s The Curtain Hits the Cast in degrees for the rest of their career, seeing a band I love evolve into something even more complete—well, it just makes me beam with pride. There was a sense that it was coming on last year’s Things We Lost in the Fire, especially on songs like “Dinosaur Act” and “Sunflowers”, both of which are devilishly fast for a band that once had a 16-minute song that was two-thirds ambient melodies, and both of which make for strange but delightful sing-alongs in concert.
But then there is this new material from the band’s latest, Trust. “That’s Why We Sing Amazing Grace” came along early and set an aptly gospel tone for several songs to come. But then there was “Canada”, a fuzzy art-house rocker from which a direct line can be drawn back to Spacemen 3 and the Velvet Underground before them. Sonically, it’s a million miles from anything Low has done as Low (Sparhawk and Parker did a ‘50s bubble-gum tragedy called “Just Really Wanna See You” outside of Low), and they know it. As “Canada” burned out to a roar of applause from the otherwise wallflowery crowd, Sparhawk leaned into his microphone and wryly said, “Whoa, you guys need to slow it down a bit.”
Sparhawk leaned into his microphone most of the night as if he was embarrassed to be in front of an audience. But, once he leaned in, he always poured out all he could, whether carrying the tune himself or boosting Parker’s gliding voice. Perhaps it’s because they’re husband and wife or perhaps it’s simply because they’ve been making music together so long, but Parker and Sparhawk have the ability to merge their voices, to sing the same key or wander off on their own vocal excursions, and remain one breathtaking unit.
Later, on the macabre “La La La Song”, Sparhawk messed with everyone’s image of the depressing band by extending the la la la’s a few extra repetitions after several in the audience prematurely applauded the song’s completion. Parker rolled her eyes at her husband, and they moved on. There was also an unexpected cover of Pink Floyd’s “Fearless”, which also appears on Trust. Low has done plenty of covers (Neil Young’s “Down by the River”, Spacemen 3’s “Lord Can You Hear Me”, Joy Division’s “Transmission”), but it’s always surprising to see what they do with them, and it always turns out as the best kind of homage—the kind that maintains the original’s heart while infusing it with a soul that is all Low.
And there isn’t another musical soul out there like Low. Regardless of personal opinions about their musical worthiness, it’s tough to compare them to any other band out there. They don’t hesitate to celebrate their aural influences, but the aural world they’ve created after absorbing those influences is entirely their own. It might seem depressing sometimes, but it’s really just their way of trying to understand themselves. Listen closely enough and you’ll understand, too.