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For Low, the past two decades have been a slow, meticulous process of perfecting a form. More than any other band's output, the Duluth trio's sparse, somber arrangements conjure a stark depiction of the frigid, often barren nature of Midwestern winters, the music's careful understatement disguising layers of complexity and obscuring obvious sentiment.
So when frontman Alan Sparhawk suggests he's made a breakthrough in his approach to songwriting, it carries that much more significance.
Speaking from his home on the North Shore, Sparhawk admits that Low has often tended toward "being sort of vague and being very, very minimal in reference to what we're saying. I think over the years I've sort of learned to come out of that a little bit more and be a little more confident with saying what is really there." Even over the phone, he sounds a bit shy, pausing and stammering occasionally as he searches for the right words, but his voice is rich and deep.
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"Every time we get another chance to say something, it just becomes that much more important that I don't hide anymore," he continues. "Sometimes making something pretty a bit ugly is hiding."
Not that Low's new album, C'mon, could be called a dramatic departure for the band. More than anything, it's yet another subtle refinement of the Low sound, one that emphasizes their more delicate and melodic qualities. Perhaps the best example of this comes with lead single and album opener "Try to Sleep," a sparkling lullaby highlighted by the harmonies between Sparhawk and his wife, Mimi Parker. Indeed, "pretty" is the perfect word to describe it.
Ironically, such characteristics may have been encouraged by Sparhawk's time moonlighting with his far louder, more guitar-heavy side project, Retribution Gospel Choir.
"Having done Retribution Gospel Choir kind of frees me up to not be noisy. Once you know that side of the coin, you can more confidently go with the other," he explains. "For me, it's a very special band, and I like the things that I've learned and the things we've been able to experience with it. But when you're working on one thing you start building up ideas for the other thing, and once you start working it's exciting."
Once work started on C'mon—recorded at Sacred Heart Studios, only a few blocks from Sparhawk and Parker's home—the laid-back sessions also benefitted from lessons learned with RGC. "We did three or four different versions of the [most recent] Retribution record before we were happy with it," Sparhawk remembers, pointing out that it was a definite change from previous experiences. "To me, that was good. I enjoyed kind of being able to go back and learn from what we'd tried a month prior and trying to get it better."
Not surprisingly, there's plenty of bleed between the two bands, most obviously on the standout "Nothing but Heart," where Sparhawk lets loose with the record's fiercest guitar work over one of Low's trademark build-ups. This epic, eight-minute dirge also serves as the culmination of a record-long exchange between him and his wife, their songs forming an informal dialogue with one another. If "You See Everything" captures Parker at her most smitten and playful, then "Nightingale" is Sparhawk's tender and unusually candid expression of his own affections. That dynamic even prompted the guitarist, somewhat misleadingly, to compare the album to Richard and Linda Thompson's Shoot Out the Lights, a notorious breakup record.
"It's definitely sort of a tongue-in-cheek thing. We're not nearly on the edge of disaster," he says with a hearty, booming laugh that ripples through the next few minutes of conversation. "It had more to do with how it feels like the songs were talking to each other and saying things that we don't say in normal life."
C'mon's decidedly conversational and intimate tone certainly feels like a break from the overtly political nature of its predecessor, Drums and Guns, but it isn't exactly a simple matter of the band making an inward retreat. Sparhawk, for one, finds it difficult to delineate the two, and his reasoning aptly sums up the sorts of questions that have always been at the heart of Low's music.
"There were a few songs on Drums and Guns that were admittedly like standing on a soapbox, trying to holler at the world," he admits, an uncharacteristic degree of agitation creeping into his voice. "It was just so obvious there were things just begging to be said.... A lot of that really comes back to the fact that I think our personal view of who another person is has a lot to do with our politics, and politics is all about whether you love and who you love."
"It's a mix," Sparhawk adds. "But at the same time they're the same questions. They come from the same places."
LOW perform with Halloween, Alaska on SATURDAY, APRIL 16, at FIRST AVENUE; 612.332.1775