Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Under Examination: Low

Welcome to a new feature. I'll write a little about some good songs, and you get to listen. Enjoy! Feedback welcome, as always.

I've only recently discovered Low, the progenitors of the unfortunately named "slowcore" movement. The trio create minimal, hauntingly beautiful songs. Every time I tried to listen to their music, I used it primarily as a background to myspace/facebook/pitchfork/all-the-other-sites-that-occupy-my-time. It was fine as ambience; pretty unobtrusive, nice-enough voices; in short, not very memorable. It wasn’t until I chanced upon “Sunflower” one night that I was converted. Low’s music is quietly intense, and actually very difficult to ignore, if you’re listening closely. This is music best enjoyed when you’re not in a hurry, and best delivered through headphones.


The opening to Low’s magnum opus Things We Lost in the Fire [2001, Kranky] begins with Alan Sparkhawk’s spacious, descending guitar chords. After a measure, Zak Sally’s subtle, though altogether crucial bassline enters. Mimi Parker’s insistent drums quickly fall in, driving the song ever forward. I’ve heard complaints of her drumming being ‘incessant’ or ‘boring’. However, I think it’s absolutely necessary to the song. The repetition is hypnotic, and draws the listener in, unrelenting until nearly five minutes have elapsed. While the ride cymbal is quietly hit on every eighth note, the snare drum is pounded (though with a brush) on every one of the four beats per measure. Yes, it is a simple drum pattern, and yes, it is repetitive. The metronomic drums are a staple of Low’s music, and make their music all the more tenacious.

Sparhawk’s lyrics are very often vague, lending to the unease that's almost ever prevalent among the band’s music. This can also be attributed to his weary tenor and Parker’s delicate alto, and how well they harmonize on nearly every track. Here, their voices intertwine in two-part harmony, singing bleak lyrics to accompany the falling chords and melodies. Towards the end of the song, however, some hope can be felt, as a small violin section bows a short, ascending whole step pattern, tenuous steps taken out of the depths.

Sunflower - Low


I think this might be the strongest track from Low’s stunning 2007 Sub Pop album, Drums and Guns. Overtly religious and political overtones make this a profoundly moving, disturbing track. It begins with a dissonant loop of guitar feedback writhing beneath panning ride cymbal strikes (this is an example of why I consider Low a “headphone band”) and Sally’s propulsive bass line. The lyrics are, as usual, fairly vague. This only adds to the discomfort felt in the song. A religious fanatic offers his services to God in unsettling desperation. The man defers to his ruler, and sounds frustrated, almost begging for his plan to be vindicated. The minimal sonic landscape draws all attention to Sparhawk and Parker’s striking three part harmonies. Sparhawk’s vocals are panned to the far right channel, while Parker sings a very low alto line in the left channel, and a higher register melody that interweaves with Sparhawk’s in the right. It’s over too quickly, and there’s hardly any relief from the built tension.

Murderer - Low

1 comment:

joshua* said...

for reference: Zak Sally left the band before they recorded Drums and Guns. matt livingston (i'm too lazy to look it up, but i'm pretty sure that's how he spells it) replaced him for this album and subsequent tour and has been replaced since then. I'm not sure of the new guy's name.

Zak was with them for almost a decade, i think. it's strange to think of him not being there anymore.

also, if you've never listened to "The Curtain Hits the Cast" on headphones, straight through, you're missing out.