Low, Trust [Kranky]
Any drug person will be more than happy to inform you that humanity can be
divided into those people who like ups and those who prefer downs. And the
beat-per-minute underachievers in Low are definitely downers people. The
Duluth, Minn., trio's music comes at you in such an inching, reluctant,
ketchup-from-the-bottle kinda way that you'll have to fight the urge to
turn the CD player over and spank it with the heel of your hand.
But just as you have your speed freaks who prefer downcast music, you also
have downers people, like me, who prefer speedy musicwhich is why
I've always avoided Low. Not for me its draggy shuffle down the muffled
corridors of sound. I want something that'll seize me by the ears and
plunge me face-first into the Trough of Joy, not something that'll send me
nodding off into the Slough of Despond.
Or so I figured, having never actually condescended to give an honest
listen to the minimalists in Lowwhose standing in my eyes wasn't
exactly increased when the Gap featured their version of "Little Drummer
Boy" in a holiday TV spot. Boy, do I feel foolish. Because Low's seventh
and latest studio album, Trust, is good. I mean really good.
Go-out-and-buy-the-complete-back-catalog good. With the exception of a
handful of pretentious tunes that stand out here like Ruth amid the alien
corn, Trust is a nearly flawless demonstration of how, in the right hands,
less can be so much more.
Alan Sparhawk (guitar, vocals), Mimi Parker (drums, vocals), and Zak Sally
(bass) keep things as simple as simple can be, but they play with a tightly
controlled intensity that belies any suspicions they're four-track
dilettantes. Hewn from the hardwoods of American folk and British postpunk
and shaped by a basic set of toolsSparhawk and Parker's bewitching
vocal harmonies, some spare but lovely melodies, and Parker's Spartan drum
workLow's songs are like Shaker chairs: unadorned, timelessly
beautiful, and obviously made by human hands. You can practically smell the
sawdust on 'em.
A more-than-worthy follow-up to the band's last long-player, the excellent
Things We Lost in the Fire, Trust opens with "(That's How You Sing) Amazing
Grace," fitting some heavenly vocal harmonies by Parker and Sparhawk to a
hypnotic, Joy Division-esque drum beat. This marvelous conjunction of the
sacred and the sinister does more than just hint at the dualities of Low's
musical wellsprings; for the almost 10 seconds that Sparhawk and Parker
manage to draw out the word "grace," it resolves them.
The same goes for "Canada," which opens with a big, impossibly fuzzed bass
riff, then piles on some heavy-duty guitars before turning intoyou
guessed itan America song. If this is Low's idea of a joke, it works,
thanks to some truly soulful vocal harmonizing by Parker and (no, he's not
dead) Gerry "Horse With No Name" Beckley. "You can't take that stuff to
Canada," they sing, but whether it's dope or something else they're talking
about, I'll never know. I don't really care, eithernot with that
pile-driver of a beat pounding in my ears like all the mining machinery in
the Iron Range operating at once.
In showbiz, of course, momentum is everything, so why Low decided to put
the mannered and underwhelming "Candy Girl" in the all-important No. 3 slot
is beyond me. From its title on downand I hereby propose a moratorium
on songs about girls named Candy, songs that compare girls to candy, and
all variations thereofit's like late Morphine without the kick, which
I suppose makes it like methadone. And everybody knows methadone is no fun.
Neither, come to think of it, is the foot-dragging "I Am the Lamb" or the
funereal "John Prine." When I'm in a good mood, I'd describe the former as
what the Alan Parsons Project might have sounded like had it gotten its
hands on Freddie Prinze's private stash of 'Ludes. When I'm in a bad mood,
I'd say it sounds more like a sumo wrestler plodding toward the shitter. As
for the latterwell, I'll just say that the man who penned "Illegal
Smile" deserves better than this eight-minute re-imagining of the Stooges'
"We Will Fall."
But hey, three bad songs out of 13 ain't bad, especially when the others
are as good as "In the Drugs," a quiet, banjofied number that features
Sparhawk singing, "I was a child/I was on fire/But I stayed alive/While all
else died/I held my breath/What could I say?/And I closed my eyes like
Marvin Gaye/But now I've had enough" before being joined on the chorus by
Parker. "It's in the drugs," they sing over and over again, Parker's
high-lonesome soprano rising to some sad and beautiful plane that mere
drugs could never hope to reach.
It's the sublime "Snowstorm," however, that really puts Trust over the top.
Without a doubt the most beautiful song I've heard this millennium, it weds
chiming guitars and gloriously pounding drums to Sparhawk and Parker's
unison vocalizing. "When we were young/We wanted to die," they sing, only
to be saved by "The sound of the drum/And the words of a child." It's a
song of pure joy made by people who have managed not only to adapt to
Minnesota's miserable climes but to draw on them for their very lifeblood:
"No, I would not face the last snowstorm of the year."
If "Snowstorm" is the most blissful song of refusal you're ever likely to
hear, then "Little Argument With Myself" is the saddest ode to stargazing
to come along in light years. "I wanna believe," sings Sparhawk, to the
accompaniment of a barely strummed guitar. A minute later, Parker comes in,
along with some tinkly bells and blustery horns, and she and Sparhawk
deliver the track's big-and-bigger climax together: "Just keep counting the
stars," they sing, "Like someday you'll find out/Just how many there
are/Then we all can go home/'Cause there's nothing as sad as/A man on his
back counting stars."
Look, I don't know how I came to believe that Low is the kind of band that
sits around all day gobbling Placidyl and perusing the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention's latest issue of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly
Report, but nothing could be further from the truth. Just check out "La La
La Song" if you don't believe me. It features backwoodsy guitars, big
echoing drums, and some cool syncopated hand clapsjust like Simon and
Garfunkel, fer crissakes!not to mention Sparhawk and Beckley singing
the "la la la"s promised in the title. Sure, the lyrics are all about
deception, dysfunction, and death, but those three little syllables sound
as if they were recorded in some mythical happier placewhere a green
light shines at the end of every pier and Sister Golden Hair awaits each
and every frickin' lonely one of us with open arms.
Why, it's almost enough to make you go out and hug somebody. So if you see
me coming down the street with my Discman on, you'd best run. CP
-- Michael Little
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