Complete and utter chaos has never sounded so intentional.
The Low Lows’ Parker Noon took his band’s name from the third and final album by his previous outfit, the dreamy New York duo Parker and Lily that he fronted with his wife of fourteen years, Lily Wolfe. When their marriage hit the rocks during the making of the album, the band ended right along with their union, and their fans were left with a strange dissonance. Released in early 2005, The Low Lows was generally regarded as the band’s most fully realized and emotionally vibrant outing, but was the strength of the music a result of the band’s inner romantic turmoil (which has, after all, fueled classics from Rumours to Shoot Out the Lights), or simply the natural product of their ongoing refinement? The couple’s dissolution guaranteed that we would never find out, threatening to leave the band’s career arc forever incomplete.
For his part, Noon has done more than enough to continue the story, possibly to a troubling degree. Not only is his current band named after the record of his marriage’s collapse, but he has also filled out the new band with the players (Daniel Rickard on guitar/bass/organ, Jeremy Wheatley on drums) that Parker and Lily used to help flesh out The Low Lows’ comparatively richer sound. With the Low Lows, then, Noon has surrounded himself with a constant reminder of his romantic failure, a bold act of art-as-therapy that, at best, serves as a poignant living requiem for the love he could not hold together and, at worst, comes off as unhealthily obsessive wallowing.
Either way, it certainly explains the persistently gloomy tone of the band’s second album, Shining Violence. Largely in keeping with Noon’s murky sonic palette, the music on this album is forever lurching through an amorphous blur of slowcore, shoegaze, and alt.country, like a sonic tapestry woven through the favored genres of the introverted and the perpetually defeated. The result is often a record of contradictory impulses. “Sparrows” builds to a stirringly epic rock grandeur, while “Raining in Eva” and “Honey” wander around listlessly to dirge-like horn sections, unable to rouse themselves awake. “Elizabeth Pier” always seems ready to work itself into an angry frenzy, but finds Noon hiding himself behind the song’s expansive wall of noise instead. A four-song stretch of country-infused numbers in the album’s second half finds an effective use of the genre’s trademark wistful harmonicas and pedal steel wading through the band’s feedback-drenched atmosphere.
Perhaps more integral to the tone of these songs than the music, however, is the way that Noon sings them. His vocal delivery remains a distinctively inarticulate moan, a wounded-animal howl forever caught in its final, dying gasps. Often, it feels as if he is being heard at a great and borderline inaudible distance from the listener, which occasionally, when it allows a key phrase to wade its way through the haze (“Never cry mercy”, he repeats throughout much of the lovely “Tigers”), produces a haunting effect. Elsewhere, though, it can be unusually alienating; the album’s cover of the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s graceful “Modern Romance” is beautifully evocative on musical grounds, but where Karen O’s backhanded encouragement in the original (“Don’t hold on / Go, get strong / Well don’t you know / There is no modern romance”) was compelling, here the message is lost.
'Haunting' and 'alienating' may, in fact, be the best ways to describe Shining Violence as a whole, a musically accomplished and unquestionably heartfelt effort that somehow never quite lets loose the cathartic flood that it should. As a chronicle of romantic despair, it works, but the best heartbreak records nevertheless remain the ones that invite you in to wallow in their misery right along with them.