Low Life

Is it time for a backlash against one of the Twin Cities' greatest local bands?

I am all too aware of the gallons of ink this publication has previously spilled in the name of Low. We have lauded their albums and side projects alike in reviews, features, year-end recaps, and even part of a cover story. I plead complicity in this parade, having penned a piece that dubbed 1999's Secret Name one of the 10 best local discs of its decade. Now, eight years and nearly as many City Pages valentines into Low's career, the backlash is long overdue. Having built up our idols, we must, in the time-honored tradition of the alt-press, tear them unmercifully down. And I, the indie-rock snob, must sneer at that which I once clutched so jealously to my breast.

That would be easy, but it would be a lie. Fact is, the Duluth trio's latest disc, Trust (Kranky), is their most adventurous. And when I saw the band perform for the billionth time a few weeks ago, they sang and played so prettily I found myself furtively wiping a tear. (Come on, it was a really smoky bar. I swear. Really!)

Of course, it was not ever so. If you've forgotten where the band started, take a moment to dust off Low's 1994 debut, I Could Live in Hope. Notice how the players seem clumsily unfamiliar with such concepts as melody, harmony, lyrics, and actually playing their instruments. In retrospect, it's apparent that the album made a favorable impression less for it was than for what, in a rock scene flooded by third-rate grunge merchants, it was not.

But Trust is as unmistakably the product of a comfortable, confident ensemble as that debut was clearly the work of greenhorns. Granted, "comfort" is often anathema to good rock music, the beginnings of an inexorable slide into formula and then irrelevance. In Low's case, however, Alan Sparhawk, Mimi Parker, and Zak Sally apply their veteran guile toward further experimentation. The new disc opens eerily with a few lonely chimes, one droning keyboard note, and a single chord from Sparhawk's guitar. Suddenly Parker's drums, huge and drenched in reverb, pound out of the speakers. This song's not an anomaly: Of all the elements in these relatively busy mixes, most striking--especially to ears accustomed to the last two Low discs, both overseen by sonic ascetic Steve Albini--is the booming percussion. Even the otherwise delicate minimalism of "I Am the Lamb" is punctuated by a snare so stiff it sounds like a coffin slamming shut, and the happy handclaps in "La La La Song" morph into ominous tribal toms. Credit (or possibly blame) for these choices is due to Tchad Blake, the English über-producer Low enlisted to mix tracks they laid down in Duluth and Minneapolis with Third Ear's Tom Herbers.

Elsewhere, Trust--like its predecessor Things We Lost in the Fire, which was released a year ago last January--toys with tempo to create dynamic contrast. Up front, "Canada" sports chunky riffs and an agitated high-hat but gives way to the fuzzy dirge of "Candy Girl." Later, the whirling waltz of "Snowstorm" plummets to the empty, plodding "John Prine." The album's instrumentation is similarly varied: You'll hear no strings this time, but lots of watery, burbling organ, a piano, and even, in "In the Drugs," what could be a banjo. Those sounds may surprise listeners, but the artistic restlessness that yielded them is nothing new to Low.

"You need to throw a wrench in the machine from time to time," Sparhawk said in a recent interview with the recording zine Tape Op. In truth, he's probably tossed in most of the toolbox by now: Since 1999, the band has issued an album of mostly original Christmas songs, a collaborative disc with the Dirty Three, and several singles with exclusive tracks--many of which were released on Low's own Chairkicker's Music label. Sparhawk has added to his résumé as producer of the likes of Jessica Bailiff and Rivulets, and recorded and toured extensively with the shaggy blues combo Black Eyed Snakes. Meanwhile Low sold a tune for a TV ad, composed music for a film score, and wrote, tracked, and toured behind Things We Lost in the Fire.

It hardly seems like coincidence that this spastic, scattershot creative burst came in the wake of 1999's Secret Name. With that stately, elegant disc, Low for the first time sustained an album's worth of bitter, tense, and intensely beautiful songs packed with concise and irresistible pop progressions and gorgeous vocal harmonies. Trust includes a handful of tunes equal to that sublime standard, namely "In the Drugs," "Snowstorm," and "Little Argument with Myself." But a lack of focus in other spots yields occasional clutter and a few too many aspiring epics that sound pretty but pointless after seven minutes.

On Secret Name, Low exceeded the promise of their previously limited parameters. In its wake, they've been busily exploring new directions. Chances are, one of those paths will lead to a new creative peak--and you can bet when that happens, we'll be there, toting our bucket of ink.

 
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