2013 Year In Music: Low

Photo by Emily Utne. Lighting by Justin Guenther.
Photo by Emily Utne. Lighting by Justin Guenther.

Most bands are lucky to survive two years, but Low have held on for 20. It has been a slow, steady climb for the Duluth experimental rock trio, but 2013 was arguably their most productive and artistically rich. Frontman Alan Sparhawk acknowledges this fact, sort of.

"Now that you think of it, it was somewhat eventful," he tells City Pages, his tone dry and self-effacing. "Every year we're still doing this and paying the house payment, it's good."

A total of 72 proper Low shows — with his wife Mimi Parker on vocals and drums and bassist/keyboardist Steve Garrington — dotted the globe in 2013 supporting The Invisible Way, the group's 10th album. Produced by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, it makes the most of studio resources and feeds their passion for earthy transcendence. Along with the revelatory "Plastic Cup" and outspoken "Just Make It Stop" is "Holy Ghost" — among the purest spiritual songs Sparhawk has ever written, and one of Parker's finest vocals.

The song's gospel heft was proven further when it arrived as the first track on the other recent high-profile Tweedy studio collaboration, with gospel/soul legend Mavis Staples, the Grammy-nominated One True Vine. When Sparhawk heard Staples's version, "I was just floored. There's a couple Staple Singers records that I have that are near and dear to my heart. That and Robert Plant [who covered two songs off of 2005's The Great Destroyer], it's honestly hard to say which one is more endearing or more life-affirming to me."

Speaking of covers, Sparhawk and Parker also recorded one of their most tender reworkings of another artist in 2013. After tackling Pink Floyd, the Beach Boys, and "You Are My Sunshine" in the past, they took a cue from their son Cyrus's Top 40 listening and performed a faithful rendition of Rihanna's "Stay" as a duet at this past summer's Pitchfork Music Festival.

But Low were discussed incessantly this year for reasons beyond what they'd anticipated. It wasn't for Sparhawk joining Wilco and Richard Thompson in Duluth for Gordon Lightfoot's sprawling "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald." Nor would it be Low's entrancing release show in March with members of Trampled by Turtles backing them at the Fitzgerald Theater. Not the debut of Low Movie: How to Quit Smoking, tracing the band's videos by director Phil Harder from the eerie "Words" clip filmed on Lake Superior to the present.

It isn't the "Duluth Does Low" tribute happening this Thursday, which Sparhawk plans to attend. ("I'm gonna go and sit in the front row, and stare down all my friends.") It wasn't even Sparhawk's pair of droning, muscular 20-minute rockers on 3, released by his heavier Retribution Gospel Choir. But it did involve drone.

What took place at the Walker Art Center as part of Rock the Garden in June proved unintentionally polarizing beyond anything Sparhawk can remember. "I've done some offensive things onstage," he admits. "Like real offensive. Like insulted people or throwing guitars into the audience." But it'll be the time that Low ditched a traditional set after a rain delay and launched into a 27-minute version of the 1996 song "Do You Know How to Waltz?" that somehow proved more effective to "bother the shit out of people," especially on Twitter, than anything from his pre-Low days with Zak Sally. Lots of folks came out hard in Low's defense too, and Lou Reed would've been thrilled.

Sparhawk's minimalist utterance "Drone, not drones" gave a nod to buddy Luke Heiken's cause of the same name, and ultimately to Low's not-so-secret pursuit of life without war. "The idea of drone is something that's atmospheric and meditative — something that goes hand-in-hand with the idea of world peace," Sparhawk says. "The antithesis is drones."

If there's another peace that he seeks as a majestic 2013 comes to a close, it's even a momentary settling of that restless, and very Minnesotan, urge to keep on working. "I guess I need to relax," he says with an audible sigh. "Maybe take a couple months off," then resolve forms in his voice, "I don't know. I'll take the rest of this month off and that's it."

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