It's the quiet ones you've got to watch|
Low's sublime songs have never needed any loud bits, yet the band have produced the best Christmas album since Phil Spector's. Ben Thompson whispers his congratulations.
17 November 2000
"And the light it burns your skin," Low's Alan Sparhawk intones tenderly, his voice flickering like a candle by a sash window, "In a language you don't understand." His wife Mimi Parker enfolds the last three words in a soft, bell-like vocal harmony, and the final note echoes out into the crowd with a clarity that borders on the supernatural.
Low are playing their biggest UK show to date in the appropriately devotional surroundings of Islington's Union Chapel and the ambience is on the monastic side of rapt. Everybody is so fiercely attentive to the particulars of the Duluth, Minnesota trio's sparse but exquisitely nuanced music, that when someone at the back tugs the ring pull on a beer can, the click echoes like a gunshot. Such a connection between a band and their audience doesn't develop overnight, and to understand how this one came about, you have to go back almost a decade.
At some time shortly after Nirvana's commercial breakthrough in 1991, the idea that it was possible to resist the status quo just by making a lot of noise was somehow no longer tenable, and the aesthetic imperative of the American rock underground switched from faster/louder to slower/quieter.
Other bands Slint, for example, or the less often celebrated but equally stately Codeine might have realised this sooner, but no one realised it quite as completely as Low. "The major drive to do what we were doing," explains the rosy-cheeked and communicative Sparhawk, "was that it was so different, we knew it would elicit a very strong and varied reaction from every audience. Going out on tour meant playing in front of a bunch of people, most of whom were going to hate the music we were making, or at least be made really uncomfortable by it, but a small number of whom would really like us."
It only takes one person talking in a loud voice at the bar to spoil a Low show. Where another band might take up arms with scabrous invective or a vicious burst of feedback, Low's approach is more Gandhi-esque. "You can't beat anybody over the head with our music," Sparhawk insists. "It's more a question of waiting for the audience to come to you." The resulting sense of dignified embattlement becomes a shared bond with those who make the effort to listen. "We were there with Low," Sparhawk only half-jokingly imagines them thinking. "We fought that battle with the talking people, and I think we won tonight."
Such victories have become ever more frequent over the last couple of years. The 1997 Songs for a Dead Pilot EP was the work of a band with an increasingly clear idea of where they were heading, and last year's Steve Albini-produced breakthrough album Secret Name (on which the exquisite "Two Step", quoted at the beginning of this article, appears) found them arriving at an austere and beautiful destination.
The famously abrasive Albini (producer of Nirvana's In Utero and PJ Harvey's Rid of Me, as well as founding father of US noise avatars Big Black and Shellac) seemed a surprising choice of collaborator. "He was the perfect person to make that record with," Sparhawk insists, "in that he was able to stand back just enough to let us do what we were then ready to do. If we'd had him for our first couple of albums it would have been a disaster, because we didn't know what we were doing then, and he's hardly the kind of person who's going to come in and say 'These are your strong points: let's work on them'."
Are they saying Albini is not the nurturing type? Sparhawk's spouse and vocal foil Mimi Parker who has up to this point been happy to sit quietly alongside bassist Zak Sally while her husband does the talking emits a derisive snort: "If you'd seen him hold a baby you'd understand." She mimes Albini picking up her eight month-old daughter, Hollis, and holding her at arm's length. "It was all in fun, but also kind of not."
Allowing for the occasional withering look that bespeaks a long-established union (the pair were highschool sweethearts before marrying 10 years ago), Parker's willingness to let Sparhawk speak for the band might lead you to imagine he was their leader, but it is she that both men describe as "the true soul of Low". Back home in Minnesota, Sally and Sparhawk like to blow off steam by playing in noisy covers bands, but Parker, the former asserts (fear mingling with admiration), has "no desire to make any music other than ours".
There's an especially lovely song on Low's landmark 1999 mini-album Christmas called "One Special Gift". Sparhawk wrote the bulk of it. "It was about the first few years of being married," he explains, "when you have maybe 10 spare dollars to buy things for everyone you know, and at the last minute you realise you don't have any money left for each other." Then Parker added a last line "one special gift for one special guest" which twists the whole thing in a new and unsettling spiritual direction.
Does Sparhawk find it annoying that because he and Parker share certain religious convictions (both are Mormons), when pop gets divided into rival armies with Pat Boone on one side and Black Sabbath on the other, they are automatically expected to join up with the former? "I am not on Pat Boone's side!" insists an anguished Sally. Parker and Sparhawk exchange glances "We'd rather be with Sabbath too."
The irony is that far from the squeaky clean enterprise the Osmonds link might suggest, the Mormon faith is actually as anyone who has read Shot in the Heart by Mikal Gilmore (brother of double murderer Gary) will tell you as scary a repository of blood-crazed psychosis as any other religion. "I guess the people who are the most wrong are sometimes the closest to being the most right," says Sparhawk. "The nearer you get to something that's true, the more you're gonna find people who really flip out."
So where do Low stand in terms of the conflict that drove Al Green crazy, the one between the Lord's song and the music of the devil? "I think the most interesting stuff happens when you're straddling that fence," Sparhawk explains. "That's where the blues came from: the struggle between spiritually-based music and more overwrought, evil [he smiles when using this word to show that he's not entirely serious] influences."
A similarly momentous culture clash can be discerned on Low's current single "Dinosaur Act". This first cut from the band's forthcoming album Things We Lost In The Fire finds them wrestling to initially bewildering but ultimately addictive effect with the unaccustomed spectre of the powerchord. "As soon as I came up with that riff," admits a sheepish Sparhawk, "I thought: there's really only one way to play this, and that's big." "We could've just abandoned the whole thing," adds Parker, "but that seemed a little dishonest."
It's too soon to guess the long term effect on Low's music of this unexpected change in direction, but when wide-screen minimalists start to cut down on their editing, the sky is the limit.
'Dinosaur Act' (Tugboat) is out now. Low's 'Christmas' mini-LP is reissued on Monday, and the new album follows in February
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