Matt on Music: Low

Low captivates with mind-blowing harmonies.

Low is a Duluth-based slowcore band fronted by married couple Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, both practicing Mormons. Although Sparhawk and Parker have been consistent members since the band’s formation in 1993, they’ve changed bassists three times.

This description, admittedly, would not generally describe a band I would like. Slow music heavy on spirituality with a constantly evolving line-up is not my cup of tea. Still, other than Wussy, I can’t think of a single other band as underrated as Low.

Low’s 1994 debut, “I Could Live in Hope,” is absolutely stunning. Its opening track, “Words,” is as much a mission statement as it is a song, which is to say that everything Low released after it stuck to the same gimmick: slow, droning music, a simple beat and vocal harmonies from Sparhawk and Parker. Everything about the music is minimalistic, but they pull it off. In a rare case of being right about something musical, Piero Scaruffi wrote of Low, “The chemistry of the band is mysterious, because none of them seems particularly skilled in compositional or executional matters, but, nonetheless, the end results are always mesmerizing.”

The harmonies are truly what make Low a special band. Other than maybe Simon and Garfunkel, no other vocal duo has even harmonized as well as Sparhawk and Parker. In fact, one of the reasons that the spirituality evident in their music is more effective than other bands is the fact that, when
they sing together, you would swear these two are spiritually connected in some way.

For anyone who heard “I Could Live in Hope” upon its initial release, it probably seemed like a fluke. But, lo and behold, the follow-up, “Long Division,” was even better. All in all, their ’90s period was made up of three beautiful LPs and one ugly one that was produced by Steve Albini.

In 2001, Low released their first album of the new millennium, “Things We Lost in the Fire,” also produced by Steve Albini, albeit a restrained Albini, which is the best kind of Albini. It was their most critically applauded album ever, their first to place in the Pazz & Jop Top 40 and, in 2009, it was ranked at No. 117 on _Pitchfork_’s end-of-decade list.

“Things We Lost in the Fire” was a great album, but its reputation as their magnum opus is irritating, especially considering that they released their actual magnum opus one year later. Despite being a masterpiece, “Trust” was also their most underappreciated work, receiving the lowest Allmusic rating of any LP in the band’s discography, 3.5/5, and a 6.5/10 from Pitchfork. Still, it remains both my favorite Low album and my favorite album of 2002.

In 2004, the band signed to Sub Pop. Their first album for the label, 2005’s “The Great Destroyer,” was sadly disappointing. It had some memorable tracks (notably “Just Stand Back,” their most well-written song ever, and the intense “Monkey”), but it wasn’t very consistent and, compared to their previous two releases, it was quite mediocre. They followed it with 2007’s “Drums and Guns,” which was even worse with shorter songs, less hooks and boringly standard anti-war lyrics. It seemed that the band had lost their edge.

Then, in 2011, four years after “Drums and Guns,” the longest the band had ever gone without releasing an LP, “C’mon” was released. It was not only the band’s best album since “Trust,” it was also one of their best albums ever. From the gorgeous “Try to Sleep,” to the epic “Nothing But Heart,” it was apparent that the break had done wonders, and I became curious as to what the band would release next.

On March 19, 2013, “The Invisible Way” was released. So, how do I feel about the album? Did it meet my expectations? Well…To be continued.

Discography grades:

“I Could Live in Hope” (1994, Vernon Yard) A
Long Division (1995, Vernon Yard) A
The Curtain Hits the Cast (1996, Vernon Yard) A-
Secret Name (1999, Kranky) B
Things We Lost in the Fire (2001, Kranky) A
Trust (2002, Kranky) A PLUS
The Great Destroyer (2005, Sub Pop) B PLUS
Drums and Guns (2007, Sub Pop) B-
C’mon (2011, Sub Pop) A

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