Slow-core’s veterans scale a new high
Low marks its 25th anniversary with an album that reacts to the Trump era
Many musicians have covered Down By The River, the confessional murder ballad written by Neil Young and featured on his 1969 album with Crazy Horse, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. Those who’ve recorded their versions of it include Young’s erstwhile mates, Crosby, Stills and Nash; the Dave Matthews Band; New Orleans’ funk band The Meters; the folk rock duo, Indigo Girls; the drummer and co-founder of Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsies Buddy Miles; the British punk band, Pulp; and others. Each of them brought their own style to their version but none as uniquely as Low & Dirty Three did when they covered it in their 2001 EP, In The Fishtank 7.
That album was the result of a collaboration between the American indie rock band Low, and Australia’s Dirty Three, a post-rock trio in which Warren Ellis of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds plays. Their nearly 10-minute version of Down By The River begins with an extended instrumental avant-garde opening that is disorderly and slow, with the vocals, sung by Low’s Mimi Parker, kicking in only 6 minutes into the song. It’s like a slo-mo re-creation of the song, with sparse decelerated guitar work, light brushings of percussion, and a hint of bass and other instruments.
A collaborative album such as In the Fishtank 7 may not be the most appropriate way to savour Low’s music for the first time but since Down By The River is a song familiar to many, it is a good place to start. Low, now in its 25th year, was formed in Duluth, Minnesota (a town that Bob Dylan aficionados will know as his birthplace) and their musical genre is often classified as slow-core: down-tempo melodies and minimalist musical arrangements. Slow-core’s songs tend to have despondent lyrics and, hence, the genre is also labelled sometimes as sad-core.
It would be unfair, though, to paint Low as a band that plays sad music. Indeed, band members—husband and wife duo of Alan Sparhawk (guitar and vocals) and Parker (drums and vocals) and Steve Garrington (bass)—find the “slow-core" tag disparaging but in an age when pigeonholing bands is convenient and in vogue, that label has stuck.
In the quarter of a century that they’ve been around, Low has released a dozen studio albums, 11 EPs, a few live albums, and several compilation albums. In mid-September, six years after their last album, Low released a new full-length, Double Negative. Written and recorded after Donald Trump’s victory, Double Negative is a response to the new and disturbing trends that have been dividing America. The album’s opener, Quorum, begins with gently rising waves of distortion, which create a dystopian, almost sci-fi soundscape before the vocals begin. One of Low’s trademarks is the excellent vocal harmony that Sparhawk and Parker create, which is quite apparent on Double Negative too. On Quorum, they sing: Quorum’s not the reason/ Selfish interest/ You’ve got to break the quorum/ This time it’s over now/ You’ve torn vacant stares? You’ve tried to blame it on the quorum.
Double Negative isn’t outrightly political. Nor does it exhort protest. But it sets a disturbed, foreboding tone that may resonate with those anxiously apprehensive about the politically divisive environment—not just in the US but also elsewhere in the world. Low’s music is marked by extra slow rhythms and melodies; and there is much breathing room between notes—space that is as integral to the music as are the sounds. Double Negative is produced by B.J. Burton, the talented but hugely underrated and famously media-shy American record producer (he’s worked with Bon Iver, Eminem, The Tallest Man on Earth, James Blake, and many other indie bands). Burton has melded electronics and lashings of distortion to Low’s sound on the album.
Those effects act like a counterpoint to the delicate, snail’s pace melodies and tender harmonies of the band, conjuring up, for the listener, a landscape of bleakness amidst which the songs and the more conventional sounds such as Sparhawk’s guitar and Parker’s gentle, nuanced drumming seem poignantly touching. The vocals often seem to come through multiple layers of sonic texture, exquisitely crafted and delivered, but always at glacial pace. It’s an album that begs to be heard multiple times, preferably on the headphones as its sound slowly flows into your ears, often cryptic and always open to your own interpretation.
Double Negative has already wowed the critics who’ve hailed it as the Minnesota band’s new masterpiece, but for those who’re new to Low’s work, it might be a good idea to turn to their first album, 1994’s I Could Live In Hope. At a time when grunge rockers such as Nirvana and hard rockers such as Soundgarden were ruling the indie scene, Low’s debut was contrarian. Each note on that minimalist album can seem carefully curated. Unlike Double Negative, I Could Live In Hope employs just a guitar, sparingly used drums, and the bass, all three complementing the almost celestial sounding vocals of Parker and Sparhawk. Despite the sparseness of the instruments, Low sounds incredibly lush on that album. Also, there’s a gem hidden at the end of the album. The 11th and final song on it is Sunshine (actually a version of the 1939 song You Are My Sunshine that countless singers have covered), which Parker sings with an endearing wistfulness. And, this may seem like blasphemy, but it trumps every other version of it that I’ve heard, including Nat King Cole’s and Johnny Cash’s... why, even Chuck Berry’s! Or maybe I’m just feeling Low.
The Lounge List
Five tracks to bookend this week
1. ‘Down By The River’ by Low and Dirty Three from ‘In The Fishtank 7’
2. ‘Dancing And Blood’ by Low from ‘Double Negative’
3. ‘Fly’ by Low from ‘Double Negative’
4. ‘Sunshine’ by Low from ‘I Could Live In Hope’
5. ‘Poor Sucker’ by Low from ‘Double Negative’
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.
He tweets at @sanjoynarayan