Album Review



by Low

Sub Pop
8.5 / 10
11th August 2011

Reviewed by Justin Paul

Duluth, Minnesota. A town huddled on the brink of Lake Superior, the coldest of the Great Lakes. Imagine the winters. Low hail from Duluth and may be the most aptly named band since Mudvayne. Low’s music belongs to winter: it is slow, cold and it cuts. But after the long night, the sun comes out. This morning I listened to Low’s ninth album, C’mon, on the drive in to work through the frost and fog of the Canterbury Plains. And I felt Low.

Low have been husband and wife, Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, and a succession of bass players for 18 years. They have a rabid fan-base but also many detractors; Low’s minimalism makes for an easy target. They have been dubbed the parents of ‘slowcore’, or sadly, ‘sadcore’. True, Low’s songs are rarely happy, and the guitar and drum arrangements are often skeletal, even funereal, but over the years, they have added to their palette with quirky production (see previous albums, Drums and Guns), a dash of reverb, the odd machine and a splash of loud (see The Great Destroyer, Low’s first album on Sub Pop). But through it all, the duo’s swirling harmonies have provided the colour, the music’s blood. In an interview with DrownedinSound, Sparhawk mentioned a recurrent theme in Low’s career, “a flirtation with pretty and ugly.” True to form, by the end of C’mon, neither pretty nor ugly should feel neglected.

C’mon opens with ‘Try to Sleep’, and it is one of Low’s most radio-friendly singles. The listener is welcomed with harmonies, shuffling drum and a xylophone. It’s a lullaby, but this singer is holding a pillow, ‘You try to sleep, but then you never wake up.’ Pretty ugly. This tone continues through ‘Witches’ where the narrator’s father advises his boy to pick up a baseball bat to rid his room of hags. It is not until ‘Especially Me’, however, when Parker takes the lead vocals and is joined halfway by Caitlin Moe’s violin, that we meet beauty again.

The next song, ‘$20’ is C’mon’s greatest mis-step. Thankfully, the maudlin repetition of ‘my love is for free’ is cut after four minutes: seemingly, I was not the only one bored of his generosity. While ‘$20’ drags, it also heralds the strongest section of the album. Both ‘Majesty/Magic’ and ‘Nothing But Heart’ share ‘$20’s repetition-to-breaking-point structure. ‘Nothing But Heart’ is in fact Sparhawk singing, ‘I’m Nothing But Heart’ for nearly seven of its eight minutes, but the gradual surge in the vocals and the muscular guitar convince the listener that he means every word he sings. So convincing is he that I challenge any solo driver to resist repeating Sparhawk’s mantra. C’mon finishes with the sinister ‘Something’s Turning Over’, a ‘campfire’ song according to its writer. It appears to be a song about ghosts that ultimately move...

‘Through the rooms so quietly
And just because you never hear their voices
Don't mean they won't kill you in your sleep.’

The album then closes with some pretty ‘La la la’s. To the last, Low wield an iron fist in a velvet glove. Or a baseball bat in the bedroom.

Earlier I wrote the phrase ‘over the years’, but if the shameful truth be known, C’mon is the first Low album I have bought. Many music fans will remember an act that somehow slipped under their radar until an accidental discovery led to a belated obsession. Ninth album? I thought. A week-long trawl through Youtube later, and you have a ‘greatest hits’ worthy of any band of the last 20 years. Low take a huge risk by not taking many risks at all, but if you want nothing but heart, be warned: the blood won’t wash clean.

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