Today I wanted to talk about a band that I found at the end of 2021, they are called Low. From Duluth Minnesota, Low is a band that is known for its minimal arrangements. Founded by husband and wife Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, Low is often associated with the post-grunge movement of slowcore which is defined by, you guessed it, being slow. Relative to other rock music, yes it’s slow. Compared to loud soft loud bands like Nirvana, Soundgarden, Hum, early Radiohead, and The Pixies who were looking to pummel listeners with a rocking chorus after a contemplative verse. Low opted for quieter sounds while commercially viable rock was increasing the volume.
Low sought their own satisfaction in their early explorations of quiet. Lullaby from 1994s I could live in hope, relative to Radiohead’s Creep barely moves the dial; Low is dynamic, patient and asks listeners to do the same. Low’s sound evolved from the quiet meditations of their early releases to the sonic experimentations of their last few records. Recent Low recordings like 2018’s Double Negative or 2021’s Hey What stand in stark contrast to their early work, with their mind bending production that leaves me dumbfounded. A meticulous listener would find that over a 13 album career, including EPs and other collaborations, Low has taken the journey to their current sound step by step.
Live, the band usually played as a three piece including a bassist or pianist in addition to the duo of guitarist/vocalist Alan Sparkhawk and drummer/vocalist Mimi Parker. In Low’s minimal arrangement, the drum setup is perhaps the most minimal element, forgoing a hi-hat or crash cymbal and even a bass drum. Mimi Parker performed with simply a snare, low tom and a ride cymbal, using an arsenal of drum sticks, mallets and brushes. Unequivocally what Mimi brought to Low more than a backbeat was her angelic voice soaring above songs or harmonizing with Sparhawk. Without lugging too much gear on stage the most important instrument was her voice.
The first time I listened to Low was in December of 2021 as music publications were publishing their end of year lists. Hey What popped up everywhere and was even nominated for a Grammy for its production by BJ Burton. It’s always sort of daunting for me to press play on an acclaimed record by a band I don’t know. The first seconds of Hey What sound nothing like rock music, I wondered when the glitchy breakbeat would start and grate at my nerves. The stuttered distortion of what I only assumed was once the sound of a guitar, continued gradually as the harmonized voices of Sparhawk and Parker emerged in beautiful unison. I was engrossed through the entire runtime. The songs and the shapes of the songs are unlike anything I’d heard before. The unexplainable distortion coupled with blissful harmonies won me over immediately.
Finding a new band is exciting to me because I love doing deep dives into the bands wikipedia. Especially for Low who has been making music since before I was born. They have 13 records released through a nearly 30 year career. If you look early on in their catalog you’ll find something new but familiar. Mimi’s vocals have always played an important role and her drumming fits neatly into songs without calling attention to itself. No Bonham fills on a Low record.
One of my favorite songs by Low is Dinosaur Act from the band’s Steve Albini produced record Things We Lost in the Fire. The song itself has the twang of a country ballad but the weight of a bulldozer. The thud of the drums and the distortion of the guitars amplify the song’s simplistic structure. The chorus repeats the title of the song incessantly. The verse tells a generational story of a numb loveless marriage. The surreal imagery of stepping on a nail compared to a bright red snowflake is intriguing even if I don’t quite know what it means. Past Present and future are told through the bleak prism of a Dinosaur Act, a phrase without an official internet definition but seems to denote an action that has been going on so long that it no longer has any effect. The song itself has a repetitive chord structure that intensifies throughout, but its power doesn’t fade like the title may imply. Subsequent choruses reveal deeper ramifications for whoever is swirling in the midst of the Dinosaur Act.
I can think of a few bands that have stuck around and become proverbial Dinosaurs compared to the heaps of new bands that emerge every year. Generally a band’s late-career albums do not contain a group’s most exciting work. The public receives and quickly discards these new records without much curiosity. Low stood apart, never really having a breakthrough moment, each record marked a gradual step forward for Sparhawk and Parker’s musical matrimony. Since the passing of drummer Mimi Parker this week, the prevailing narrative surrounding Low is that their last 2 records were some of their best. In a recent interview Alan and Mimi attributed their critical success to the fact that they never had a hit, they continued their artistic progression unencumbered by commercial expectation. It’s quite the theory akin to the double gold slit, where particles behave differently with and without observation. I’ve only recently perceived Low’s greatness in the past year, with a relatively small window to explore their catalog before the prospect of its growth had shuttered with Parker’s passing. Critics have taken a look back at her work with Low and marked a gradual ascent to something far more valuable than commercial success could deliver.