Artist: Low Release Date: spring 1994
Label: Vernon Yard Records Running time: 57m 05s
Zak Sally - Bass
Alan Sparhawk - Guitar, Vocals
Mimi Parker - Percussion, Vocals
Engineered & Produced by Kramer (from the Shimmy-Disc label)
All songs recorded autumn 1993
Musical Context :
All the members of the band hail from Duluth, MN, a cold, old mill town on Lake Superior. Sparhawk and Parker - the two founding members of the band - met in the fourth grade (had been sweethearts of sorts ever since) and were finally married in 1995 (not long after the recording for this record). Perhaps seeming from that inherent patience, they actually started the band in 1993 as an experiment in playing quiet and slow (in part simply to annoy the local grunge-rock brats). They added a mutual friend to the effort after some local shows, recorded a short demo and sent copies of to a number of small independent producers - one being the one man, college radio bastion, Kramer at Shimmy-Disc records in New York. They were promptly summoned by the aforementioned for a session ~ and the next year their debut album emerged, released to wide-spread critical acclaim (from country and indie enthusiasts alike). Low then spent much of 1995 and 1996 incessantly touring, while also recording for their equally worthy follow-up, Long Division.1
What’s it sound like though?
This is molasses-slow, southern gothic, rust belt doom country. "We like to see how little we can get away with," says Zak Sally, and according to Parker,"We like to play with time and space in our music. We intentionally create gaps in between notes, because we feel they're just as important to our music as the music itself.” Silence as an instrument. They rely on no electric bursts or feedback, no studio gimmickry.2 Low lets each echoing chord hang in the air, resonate itself for a moment, just before the next note unfurls. Parker plays a lone snare and cymbal, to counter the soft waver of the guitar and bass. The chorus of each lyrically-sparse song is pulled like slow taffy, while sparse instrumentation echoes out from what sounds like the centre of an empty aircraft hanger.3 A phenomenal disc to drive to on a rainy night with just you and the road signs.
Say, for the sake of argument, I love the record? What else might I try?
Not much of a limb for me to go out on, but this record would tip me towards their next, which is certainly in a beautifully similar vein (Curtain Hits & Secret Name were honestly a little uneven to my ear). They’ve also recorded an excellent off-the-cuff 1999 session with the Dirty Three guys (inspired by Chan Marshall, I’m not sure) called In The Fishtank (as part of an-going project to through complementary bands together) where they do a ten-minute over of “Down By the River” with all the strings backing them up, that will knock you flat.4 A shot in the dark: you’d probably also fall in love with the '93 'Roller coaster' second album of the Red House Painters (equally down-tempo, minimal, heart-rending, etc.), Bedhead’s final full-length, Transaction de Novo (1998) or Mazzy Star's Among My Swan (though it's their quietest record, there is still far more production & glitz on it than the earlier Low discs) .
1. Words - 5:45 ~ a twangy opener about televised religion to set the mood, the chorus drawn out like medicated angels - “...is that the truth he says /
the pain is easy / too many words...”
2. Fear - 2:12 ~ short, shivery duet dredging up imagery from a deluge “if you see my daughter /
don't tell her I'm scared...”
3. Cut - 5:43 ~ the first song on the disc where you might actually wonder when, or if, the singing might begin, though it ushers in a fine last minute sweep of guitar ~
4. Slide - 3:46 ~ Mimi takes the lead here for the first time, with a slow ballad of decentred disappointment - “...they tell you come tomorrow /
nothing for you now...”
5. Lazy - 5:35 ~ another quiet duet ~
6. Lullaby - 9:46 ~ a glowingly slow-build, with whole bar-length pauses between some notes, Mimi delivers the stretched-out chorus in long, wavering rays over the first three minutes, setting up the remaining seven for some of the longest, downbeat guitar solos ever - “cross over and turn /
feel the spot don't let it burn /
we all want we all yearn /
be soft don't be stern...”
7. Sea - 1:45 ~ ~
8. Down - 7:24 ~ a bit like Ian Curtis, heavily Xanax'd, dropped into a mid-Western country barn dance, populated wholly by ghosts ~
9. Drag - 5:11 ~ Mini's patiently breezy back-up vocals here are fantastic - “...I'm sorry if I'm losing ground / it works much better if I let it drag me around”
10. Rope - 6:11 ~ fifteen words, six minutes, one morose image - tough as all get out - “you're gonna need more /don't ask me to kick any chairs out from under you”
11. Sunshine (Davis) - 2:59 ~ easily the saddest cover of the song I’ve ever encountered, you’ll hopefully never hear children render it like this. If you do, get them some help, or maybe ease off on the meds. ~
1 Kramer (produced weirdos like Bongwater, the legendarily lush Galaxie 500 records, as well as Damon and Naomi’s first two...along with White Zombie and Gwar!) while producing their 2nd outing, was soon supplanted. Somewhere through these road-trips the band impressed producer Steve Fisk (Boss Hog, Nirvana) who later produced The Curtain Hits The Cast (1996). Steve Albini then came out of the woodwork to produce the Secret Name (1999) record.
2 Sparhawk, on influences, says “we are fans of 80's bands like Joy Division, Wire, OMD, the Birthday Party, but we also like Beatles, Roy Orbinson, Phil Spector” (you should really hear their cover of the Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me, which manages somehow to outpout even Moz). And on genres, “slowcore started as a joke term, but someone took it seriously. It is too bad people want a term instead of listen to the music.”
3 Saw them play the Olympia Theatre, Ste-Catherine East in Montreal, September 10, 1999, with label-mates godspeed and labradford. Low went first, and before the back drop of a thirty foot, stage wide midnight blue velvet curtain, and under a single white spotlight, they strummed hypnotically through their material for Secret Name, which had just be released. Later, the three of them sat on the carpeted floor outside in the Deco lobby, with one of the heavy theatre doors slightly ajar, so they could smoke but also hear labradford’s set. The whole show that night - every member of every band- performed without a single word of commentary. Between the sets all you heard was an appreciative murmur circulating around the floor, trickling down from the gallery. Sweet mother of god, live music is just so much better without all the shouting.
4 Low also gave the nod to what you might graciously call an 'uneven' 1998 re-mix album, entitled 'OWL' which featured, among other things, a mix of 'Words' from their debut, executed by Jimmy Sommerville (ex-lead singer of Bronski Beat). One questions their wisdom ~ this one for silly complete-ists only (the beats and electronics were sounding really dated even when the thing came out, and not in any kind of clever, retro- good way - think I’ve had it on maybe three times since).
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