Low - Globe and Mail article 10/03/02
L o w
the songs
tour archive
CKM label
Articles and Interviews

Falling for Low's autumnal sound
From The Globe and Mail, Thursday, October 3, 2002 -- Page R4

Down at the corner, they've got the pumpkins out already, just three of them sitting like wise old tramps on a bench outside the milk store. One has its stem at a rakish angle, the joker of the bunch; another, long-faced, deep-veined -- Mr. Samuel Beckett Squash -- silently scripts out the wait for the buyer who'll come to carve their eyes and mouths, or not come at all; the third is squat, bald, stub of stem at his brow like a stunted hope. Black umbrellas float in formation past my window.

And on the stereo, another trio, Low, plays its own soft rainsquall, called Trust: Guitar wash and choral harmonies, drums and glockenspiels, eroding through the air: "Got a weak pair of lungs/ from a childhood disease. . . . Tried to learn from the past/ Keep my fist in my mouth/ But they just keep falling out./ Well all right, well all right."

Autumnal sounds for autumnal scenes. We often speak of music and weather together -- rainy-day music, sunshine music, cool music and warm. But we seldom aggregate musical weather into seasons, except for summer anthems. Winter gets narrowed down to Christmas carols, spring to April in Paris, and autumn to back-to-school salesmanship.

But autumnal music really is a genre all its own, perhaps my favourite kind. It overlaps with the sounds of midnight and the lonely wee small hours, but it's cooler in its romancing, less sure of itself but more observant, as stoical as those marooned pumpkins watching a darkening world.

The easiest entrée to autumnal music is to think of Halloween: creaking doors and floorboards, howling wind, organ music, clanking chains drawing near. The ambience can be translated from sound effect into song. Johnny Dowd, for instance, is a New York truck driver who sings horror movies for the heart, gothic country operas that recall such autumnal music masters as Johnny Cash or Tom Waits (Friday at the Tequila Lounge, 794 Bathurst St., $8).

But that is the exaggerated end of the line. Every song has its hauntings, no matter what the season. But autumnal music, intimate with death, stops on the threshold -- watching leaves fall, thinking, "and there go I, too, but not yet, not yet."

Rather than succumb to morbidity, the best soundtracks for this time of year feel the vertigo of mortality -- of people in mourning for themselves, but from afar, and maybe with a dumb little straw of stubborn belief that the singer somehow will be the one to survive the harvest. Autumn doesn't happen only in minor keys; Halloween is a children's game too.

The fall, after all, is also a kind of New Year's, that time of atonement and new resolve. Compulsory education sets our internal clocks, and every September that I don't find myself back in class feels a bit like playing hooky. Think of Rod Stewart, back when he didn't suck, singing, "It's late September and I really should be back in school" to his older, forbidden, maybe predatory Maggie Mae. That's autumn lust for you, all the more delicious for spoiling your plans to make something of yourself this year. In autumn, there is something else you really should be doing but the streets are still not too cold for temptation.

An autumn mix also might include: Neko Case's introspective new Blacklisted; the fearful funk of the Zombies' Time of the Season; some Kurt Weill; Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks and John Wesley Harding (especially All Along the Watchtower); poets of regret like Nick Drake, Richard Buckner, Marianne Faithfull, Townes Van Zandt, Neil Young and especially Leonard Cohen; Beck's quiet side; classic Billie Holiday, George Jones or Bill Evans; and distressed young fogies Will Oldham, Songs: Ohia, Red House Painters, or Low.

Coming from the chilly climes of Duluth, Minn., Low knows the pattern as well as any Canadian (on Trust there is even a tune called Canada, about the place where the margin of error is slimmest). Fall is the eight-year-old band's favourite time for a new release, and Trust follows last year's stronger Things We Lost in the Fire, where the frozen tempos of its signature "slowcore" style first loosened and loudened up, to lend the songs more muscle.The new album has an even greater dynamic range, though the songwriting is just a bit chastened and less commanding. (With melancholy Mark Eitzel, ex-American Music Club, at Lee's Palace, 529 Bloor St. West, $15, on Saturday.)

The group consists of two Mormons (husband Alan Sparhawk and wife Mimi Parker, who sing, and play guitar and percussion respectively) and one non-believer (bass and keyboard player Zak Sally) -- which may help explain its tentative approach.

Yet Low's own label is called Chairkickers, summoning up at once a fidgety child at the start of school and someone perched in front of a noose who may or may not take the final step into the void. This is not exactly a band beset by pieties.

Instead, Trust seems to probe a continuing crisis of faith, or perhaps faith in crisis, with tunes such as I Want to Believe and Little Argument with Myself. In the opening song, Parker and Sparhawk sing, with the drone of a bat honing in on its cave: "Sometimes there's nothing left to save/ That's how you sing Amazing Grace." And there's autumn, the season of Soren Kierkegaard, in a slowing heartbeat: Finding something to hold on to, while knowing nothing can break the fall.

- Carl Wilson, cwilson@globeandmail.ca


« Back to other articles from 2002