Quiet Drama

the austere music of Low

First of all, it was October, a rare month, to paraphrase Ray Bradbury (not that all months aren’t rare, he added), and it had been an unseasonably warm fall so far in Boston. “And if it’s around October twentieth and everything’s smoky-smelling and the sky orange and ash gray at twilight, it seems Halloween will never come in a fall of broomsticks and soft flap of bedsheets around corners.” The orange and gray twilight of Monday, October 23 marked not only the final October performance this year by Low, but the final U.S. date on the band’s current tour as well. And just for the extra special topping on this particular confection, October 23 happened also to be the only New England date on Low’s aforementioned tour.

When Mimi Parker, Alan Sparhawk, and Zak Sally pulled into Brookline, Massachusetts, they were fresh from an appearance in New York as part of the CMJ Festival, an annual celebration of young and independent musicians sponsored by the college music magazine, which highlights the hip and the soon-to-be-hip. Low fall into the former category; they are hardly newcomers to the alternative rock scene (a near-capacity crowd at the Coolidge Corner Theater will attest to that). They released their first album, I Could Live In Hope, in 1994, which, like its follow-up Long Division, was produced by legendary NYC indie kingpin Kramer (known for, among other projects, his roles in the influential cult bands Shockabilly and Bongwater). Despite these New York roots, it is very clear from the sparseness of Low’s music that they are from another place altogether. That place, it turns out, is Minnesota, land of Fargo, Frostbite Falls, and all things cold. Little coincidence, then, that a slight chill came to the air that Monday night when Low came to town. Luckily there is warmth in their music, and that warmth spread quickly over the hushed crowd as soon as Low took the stage.

Through the two previously mentioned albums, and those that have followed, in particular 1996’s The Curtain Hits the Cast and last year’s Secret Name, Low have made a name for themselves by exhibiting a uniquely delicate and austere style that has been often imitated but never matched. Seeing as the chorus of the first song on Low’s first album bemoans the abundance of “too many words,” it may seem inappropriate to take more than a few words to describe their sound. Yet it’s tempting, and inevitable considering the bare structure of the band’s songs and presentation, to find weight in the few words they have chosen for themselves. The word “low” can been used to evoke decreased intensity or amount, and while Low certainly present their musical ideas in a simplified format, they are not altogether lacking in intensity. In fact, the band offers a great deal of quiet drama. There is a low-ness to the band in their humble nature, and the soft-pitched lowness of their sound is perhaps the most apparent connotation of their name. Low is unjustly accused, however, of making music that is overly low-down. Sure, there are sad moments, but bright ones, too. A concertgoer, who attended Low’s Friday the 13th performance in Tampa, Florida ten days previously, described it to me best, “most people I talk to about the band think of certain Low songs or albums as personal ties to memories that are evoked specifically by the music, not in a depressing light, as many think, but a reflective one.”

Low’s music is far from monochromatic, as is also often suggested. Their recorded material carries through it a thematic constancy, but their approaches have varied from elegant pop songs to extended experiments in droning repetition (as in the case of their Kranky Records debut, Songs For A Dead Pilot). Sameness can hardly be accused of a band who are daring enough to follow up a fourteen-and-a-half minute track with one less than a minute in length. The breadth of their work is brought to its fulfillment by renowned producer Steve Albini (known, oddly enough, for recording noisy albums by Nirvana, Pixies, and the Jesus Lizard, among others) on their most recent Kranky LP, Secret Name. Boasting the greatest diversity of sounds and styles yet, Secret Name shows off a surprising variety of new sonic elements without losing sight of the characteristic “Low sound.”

It’s from Secret Name that Low pulled the greater number of songs performed that Monday night, including the melodious “Starfire,” “Soon,” and the playfully reflective “Two-Step.” The performance also featured favorites such as “Over the Ocean” (a 1996 song which inspired one of the most memorable music videos ever shown—but probably only once or twice—on MTV) and “Lazy,” following a petition for audience requests midway through the show. Low are known for playing their own versions of “pretty little songs” from the past, from artists such as John Denver and the Bee Gees, and it came as no surprise to hear during the concert a unique rendition of the Beach Boys’ “Surfer Girl.”

Onstage at the Coolidge Corner Theater, with limited lighting coming from the front corners of the stage, the three members of Low were framed in much the same way as they are on the inside cover of The Curtain Hits the Cast, like play-actors standing before the orchestra pit with their own enormous shadows looming in the background. The uniformly woven sound of Alan’s guitar, Zak’s bass and Mimi’s drums, when adorned by Alan and Mimi’s gorgeous vocals, proved mesmeric. Their fragile harmonies meshed with the minimalist tones in such a way to suggest almost the opposite of the classic rock notion of “power trio.” The trick is, of course, that their power is reigned in. They are most definitely a “rock band,” but unlike any other in their artistic approach to rock. During the performance, the anti-power trio were joined onstage by various members of opening act Ida, who provided a rough but intriguing teaser for the evening. While not without fresh perspectives on appropriated musical ideas and creative use of their members’ multiple talents, Ida’s overlong intro grew stale long before the six-piece broke the hour mark—a real no-no for an opening band. The Ida members’ contributions to Low’s set helped to flesh out the sound and lent a sense of family to the evening (a sense furthered by the fact that those members of Ida not on stage during Low’s performance helped to babysit married couple Alan and Mimi’s child who lay sleeping backstage).

In performance, as on album, Low provide the listener with a sort of musical rapport in such a way that comforts yet contains foreboding. There always seems to lurk underneath the surface a darkness of which they dare not speak, hence the limited words. In the end, however, Low reassures us that “there are many things to be afraid of / like ghosts and death and climbing too high / there are many things to be afraid of / but don’t be afraid of the dark.”