With their first record in 1994, Low opened a door to an undiscovered musical universe, one they continue to inhabit largely alone. There really isn’t another band that is slow, quiet, melancholy and intense in quite the same way. And now, with Trust, Low has created yet another record of sublime beauty.
If you’re familiar with independent music, you probably know the facts of the band, a trio from Duluth, Minnesota. Alan Sparhawk plays guitar and sings; his wife, Mimi Parker, sings and plays percussion. Zak Sally plays bass. Low’s most high-profile moment to date may have been around Christmas 2000, when the Gap used their recording of “Little Drummer Boy” in a TV ad. Other than that flash of mainstream exposure, they seem content to remain in the independent music world.
This is certainly a more nurturing place for them than a ClearChannel listening room, with music directors accustomed to Incubus desperately trying to find a call-out hook. Low’s music is characterized most importantly by its subtlety. The band’s songs are rich with gaps, low hums, long notes and longer pauses (see the review of their previous record, Things We Lost in the Fire) that, like someone whispering, draw the listener in close.
Inside that close circle there are often the unmistakable harmonies of Parker and Sparhawk singing together. Imagine Exene and John Doe down a long Sergio Leone lens, singing along a railroad track masked by layers of blowing dust. Or Emmylou Harris and Neil Young exhausted, half-asleep, trying not to disturb a baby sleeping in the next room. Separately their voices can be beautiful; together they are just awkward enough to be transcendent.
Truth has the solemn and quiet moments—low-slope openings to “(That’s How You Say) Amazing Grace” and “I Am the Lamb,” the barest arc of “It’s in the Drugs”, the lullaby of “Tonight”—that should be enough to satisfy any long-term fan.
Yet it also, within the bounds reasonable for Low, rocks out like crazy. With Sparhawk’s reedy vocals and scorching guitars, “Diamond” could almost be a new Neil Young song. The thudding drums that come up in “I Am the Lamb” are positively intimidating. Feedbacky fuzz lifts and billows in “Snowstorm” while guitars are as cold and accusing as a church bell echoing across an empty winter square in “John Prine.”
When the CD isn’t rocking and isn’t quiet, there are a couple of songs that sound suspiciously like pop. “La La La Song” has slightly psychedelic background guitar/sitar sounds, a swingy melody, and syncopated handclaps. Criminy, it even has Gerry Beckley of America (“You Can Do Magic”) jumping in on vocals. The rousing “Canada”, so head-noddingly hummable, will resurface in your brain days later, no matter that you didn’t know you knew it.
It’s not quite fair to summarize songs like these; within each one are scads of tiny, vibrant details. A tuba bubbles ebulliently for a few bars. Feedback tears through fragile sonic fabric violently, just once. The scratch of metal against metal. A harmonica tone barely longer than a second flickers back unexpectedly. Someone leans on piano keys. Birds chatter. A bag of sand spills.
Perhaps like Tom Waits or the Cramps, artists so individual that they live in genres of their own, Low’s moves are subject to a special kind of scrutiny. Are they moving too far from the unique place they started? Are they bowing to the pressures of popularity and getting trendy? Or, instead, are they simply rehashing past successes?
Low is doing none of these things. From the high plains of Duluth, Low continue to create music true to the universe they invented without standing still. On Truth, low-key turns up, and minimalism expands to include wailing guitars. This is another great Low record: weighty and airy, compelling and quiet, eminently beautiful.