Low - FakeJazz's review of Things We Lost In The Fire
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Low, "Things We Lost In The Fire" (Kranky) - 11/12

Low exists on their own plane, apart from other musicians, in a transcendent state to which, by their music, they provide us fleeting access. Thus, it is inappropriate for one to act as a critic in relation to Low, to judge their music. This is not a review. It is a tribute. (In fact, the only reason that this record has not been assigned a 12/12 rating is because of a personal belief that a perfect album can only reveal itself as such over time, and cannot be labeled one immediately upon release. However, since every other Low record would receive, at this time, 12/12, there is no reason to believe that this one will not also.)

For the uninitiated, Low has traditionally worked a pretty narrow area. One guitar, one bass, a couple of drums, two voices, occasionally embellished by strings, keys and other subtle noises. Always slow--sometimes just kinda slow, often really slow. What makes their music work is 1) the economy of their sound, every note and each space between notes is essential: no waste, only what is necessary; and 2) the extraordinarily high quality of their songwriting: simple, beautiful melodies, evocative and inventive harmonies, imbued with a startling degree of emotionality.

After two releases showing a yen for experimenting, Songs for a Dead Pilot and the strange and beautiful Secret Name, Low has pulled back a bit from the effects and produced an outstanding set of more straightforward songs. Overall Things We Lost in the Fire lacks the tension and disturbance of their more recent releases. However, the general quality of this batch of tunes is on par with those on Long Division (their second long-player, released on the late Vernon Yard).

"Sunflowers" opens up the album with a bright, upbeat melody (maybe 75 bpm, practically racing by Low standards). Guitar, bass and Mimi's insistent snare underpinning Alan and Mimi's always perfect harmonies, interrupted only by a short string interlude near the end. Also, consider "Medicine Magazines" is a great showcase for the group's vocals, as the music is stripped down to its purely rhythmic elements, with the exception of a faint piano line. The vocals float in a cloud of buzz and haze which inhabits many of the songs on this album.

That is not to say, however, that things are not sonically interesting. "Whitetail" drones like some of the best of Low's Kranky releases. Often just one bass note, one chord, and a ringing symbol, its like a mood, captured and perfectly balanced for a short moment before it evaporates. A couple of tracks, like "Dinosaur Act" and "July" use a little bit of distortion to great effect. And, sporadically through the record, accent tones, hazy fuzz and other embellishments are used as necessary

The real highlight, though, is "Laser Beam." Mimi sings solo, no drums, over a very delicate guitar melody, played clean, and Zak's subtle bass. This song is really a throwback to Vernon Yard-era Low. What is remarkable, though, is what Steve Albini's engineering brings to this kind of song. Or, rather, what it doesn't bring. Where, on Long Division, Kramer polished Low up to a high sheen, his production intervention created a kind of artificiality that distances the listener. The sound was too pristine. On tracks like "Laser Beam" (or "Whore" or "Kind of Girl" or "In Metal"), the recording as an openness and an honesty, like a whisper in your ear.

Albini, recording 'em as he hears 'em for the most part, has, for the first time, has caught the live sound. It's a feeling that is difficult to describe and is perhaps best summed up in "intimacy." Low live creates a kind of sacred space with their music, where the audience is caught up, like a rapture. Once one has experienced it, it comes back just a little bit whenever you hear those songs again. On Things We Lost in the Fire, Low has captured it on tape.

dave christensen
2001 feb 9


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