Low is a band that is usually described using a few similar terms — slow-core, glacial, minimal — but they have never been described as cinematic. In 2000, in between the career-defining albums Secret Name and The Things We Lost in the Fire, Low created the EP The Exit Papers, a stab at making film music. They sent it out to film companies and producers with the hopes of getting work in the film industry. It was also released on Temporary Residence’s Travels in Constants CD subscription series, and is now getting a vinyl and digital re-release to help celebrate Temporary Residence’s twenty year anniversary.
The two albums that bookend The Exit Papers are easily among Low’s most cherished releases. Both were made with noted soundsmith Steve Albini. In addition, both showcase some of the same slow paced, sedate songs that Low had become known for making. But there was something happening in the room. The band was searching for something. Any fan of the band at the time could tell that they were becoming restless and looking for new paths.Secret Name eschewed the negative space of earlier releases for chamber arrangements and occasional noise, while Things We Lost in the Fire was their most conventionally “rock” album up to that date. The Exit Papers, coming around this time, seems to have been their experiment with another new path, a new possibility for their career. Unfortunately, the work it showcases, although occasionally effective, is poorly conceived film music as a whole.
A chunk of The Exit Papers could function as film music though. “Untitled 1” would work well behind opening credits. The song builds from a looped synth drone to a piece highlighting a wordless melody that could act as a theme to a moody, slow-moving film. “Untitled 2” continues in a similar downcast mood. Starting with just a drone and slowly adding rudimentary acoustic guitar, electric guitar flourishes, and a machine-like hum, the song stops short of making any kind of bold statement, which is typical of film scores. “Untitled 5” is a suspenseful, taut rock song that would not be out of place in a fight scene. Personally, I think “Untitled 5” would sound excellent behind a scene where insufferable bad-guys in sunglasses smash car windows with baseball bats.
Not all of The Exit Papers fares as well though. “Untitled 3” is a strange piece; its foundation is a repeated riff on a toy piano. Behind it we hear a drum set and some squealing. As a mood piece it works, but as a film score it does not. The toy piano’s rackety tone calls too much attention to itself. A film score should set a mood without showing its face. “Untitled 4” is a mess of a track, and the only thing I could see it scoring would a decidedly pretentious mumblecore film by some director no one will ever know. While all the rest of the tracks on this album range from one to three minutes, “Untitled 4” is nearly fifteen minutes long. Moreover, every single moment of this song is felt. Actually, it’s not a song — it’s more of a recording of a band setting up their rig. For fourteen minutes, the band seems to pick a note, drone on it, plug in their instruments, play with feedback, unplug their instruments, and then repeat the process. Somewhere in there, they play “Untitled 1” on a boombox in the background to tell the listener, “Yes, this is a film score. Here’s the theme!” “Untitled 6”, the closer, continues what “Untitled 4” started without the drones. It seems that the band bought a cheap microphone and placed it about twenty feet away from a stereo playing a cassette of “Untitled 1” and pressed record. It’s junk.
The band Low, on the flip side, are a treasure. They have a long, rewarding career behind them as well as ahead of them. Zooming out, this release is not an important part of the Low narrative. The Exit Papers is a minor release by a major band. It’s worthwhile for the fans and the collectors, but stay away if Low is not already your love.