Low - Pitchfork's review of Things We Lost In The Fire
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Low, "Things We Lost In The Fire" [Kranky]
Rating: 8.0

When Low emerged from snowy Duluth, Minnesota with their 1994 Kramer-produced debut, I Could Live in Hope, their trudging funeral marches, sparse instrumentation, and Royal Albert Hall production values were strikingly fresh. Though they were preceded in the slowcore movement by earlier innovators like Galaxie 500 and Codeine, it was Low that defined the genre's sound.

Of course, by their third album, 1996's The Curtain Hits the Cast, the formula began to wear thin. New producer Steve Fisk brought little to the trio's sound, which remained virtually unchanged. While Low turned out a few great songs on the record-- namely, "Anon," "Over the Ocean," and "Lust"-- the near-Canadians failed to branch out, save for the 15-minute jam session "Do You Know How to Waltz?"

Low began loosely experimenting on 1998's Songs for a Dead Pilot EP, but returned to less adventurous songwriting the following year with the full-length Secret Name. The album sported crisper, less dramatic production, but failed to deviate from the concept the band had begun with five years earlier. Regardless, the songs were of a similar caliber to those on previous outings, and a whole legion of new fans sprung up.

Most newcomers haven't grown tired of Low's penchant for lethargy, since, to this day, few bands have attempted what the Mormon Three have already perfected. The closest runners-up may be New York's Ida; the two bands are often considered contemporaries within the same genre. But this comparison belies one simple backbone fact: Low rarely force themselves to sound beautiful. Instead, they focus on building tension and atmosphere around sloth-paced pop songs, while Ida witlessly water down their own country/folk influences with syrupy strings and gaudy "prettiness." Vanity has never been Low's concern, and on Things We Lost in the Fire, their humility has never been so affecting.

The opening track features a double-timed, pounding snare, a basic descending chord structure, and the gratingly "nice" refrain, "You bought some sweet/ Sweet/ Sweet/ Sweet Sunflowers." But a more attentive listen reveals a new lyrical direction. They've toned down the ambiguity and opted for creepy surrealism: "When they found your body/ Giant x's on your eyes/ And with your head for the ransom/ You bought some sweet sunflowers/ And gave in to the night."

Even if the British EP hadn't been available since last year, "Dinosaur Act" would stand out as the obvious single. Mimi Parker's tiny snare drum is squashed beneath pummeling tympani like the song's prehistoric namesake, as frontman Alan Sparhawk closes the song's final chorus with a shouted "Dinosaur!"

But In the Fire's finest moments come just as the album draws to a close. On "Like a Forest," the band dig themselves out of their somber rut to briefly uplift; the track is paced at nearly twice the speed of their other pieces, and seems generally optimistic, if lyrically vague. "Like a Forest" is filled out with an economy-size string section produced to sound incredibly dense. But rather than overwhelming the song with soaring drama, the strings are incorporated conservatively low in the mix, and generate a warm hum for the sake of ambience. Meanwhile, a lone plinking piano note keeps pace alongside Parker's snapping percussion. Were "Like a Forest" the only Low song you'd ever heard, it's unlikely you'd suspect its somewhat psychedelic chord structure and absolutely engaging, see-sawing vocals were the product of the progenitors of slowcore.

"In Metal" is a simply crushing Parker-sung ode to she and Sparhawk's new baby, Hollis. Parker's chilling voice, as she confesses her hopeless longing for the child to stay small forever, simultaneously attains both heartbreakingly desperation and jubilance: "Partly hate to see you grow/ And just like your baby shoes/ Wish I could keep your little body/ In metal." There's a bizarre David Lynch quality to the concept of immortalizing a baby in some kind of Han Solo freeze that prevents the song from crossing over into blatant sentimentalism. But Parker's affection for the child, who can be heard squeaking at low levels during the song's first verse, is not feigned. The song serves as a flawless finale, to the point that it can alter your view of the album as a whole.

In truth, the whole of Things We Lost in the Fire rarely equals the impact of "In Metal," and at many points, even floats out of immediate consciousness to dwell in pits of mediocrity. "Whitetail," despite spectacular brushed cymbal loops and effects, flounders aimlessly for more than five dragging minutes; "Laser Beam" is beyond minimal, with just Parker singing quietly over pausing guitar; "Embrace" is painfully melodramatic as Parker spouts such ridiculousness as "I fell down the stairs/ I wished I were dead"; and the 49 second-long untitled track that precedes "In Metal" plays like a manufacturing error that accidentally caught a portion of labelmates Windy & Carl's Consciousness.

Still, Things We Lost in the Fire's high points are, without question, the best they've done. An endless list of studio guests-- including ex-Soul Cougher Mark D'gli Antoni on piano and sampler, trumpeting by Bob Weston, and impeccable production by one Steve Albini-- certainly add to the enjoyment. But above all else, it's Low's willingness to finally live up to their Kranky cohorts by experimenting with ambient textures, eerie tension, and advanced songwriting methods that saves this from being yet another I Could Live in Hope. Here's hoping they get even weirder.

-Ryan Schreiber


Things We Lost in the Fire on Amazon.com