The Hypnotic Harmonies of Low
On the same late-September evening that Pope Francis arrived in New York City, the Minnesota-based indie rock band Low made an appearance at Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg in support of its newest album, Ones and Sixes, released earlier in the month on Sub Pop. Formed in 1993, Low is a band like no other. Through eleven studio albums, Low has continued to refine a distinctively haunting and minimal sound that has often been labeled slowcore or sadcore. The band dislikes the terms, but few would deny that Low’s music is both slow and sad—though that doesn’t begin to tell the whole story.
Performing as a trio, Low is the project of Mimi Parker (drums and vocals) and Alan Sparhawk (guitar and vocals), a married couple with kids who share songwriting and primary vocal duties. Rounding out the lineup is current bassist Steve Garrington, who also doubles on keyboards. Drawing heavily from American blues, gospel, and folk traditions, as well as from British post-punk, goth, and new wave, Low’s music has a degree of sincerity and emotional depth rarely found in rock music. A major hallmark of its sound is the rich and varied vocal harmonies the couple produces on almost every song, sometimes with Parker’s cool alto in the bass and Sparhawk’s delicate falsetto on top, or just as often with the roles reversed. On this night their singing was stunningly beautiful and harmonious, as Parker and Sparhawk took turns on lead vocals.
Their roughly ninety-minute set drew heavily from Ones and Sixes, beginning with the stark and bluesy “No Comprende” and proceeding through the bulk of the album, with occasional digressions into their back catalogue, mostly drawn from their recent Sub Pop releases. Few bands have the dynamic range of Low, and this set took us through everything from a hush to a roar and many points in between. At times it felt like a chamber music concert, at others a death metal show. The flow of songs also had a rich dynamic to it, as shorter, simpler songs would gradually lead to longer, more complex statements and back again, at times reaching unexpected psychedelic climaxes. And for a few miraculous moments interspersed throughout the evening, the music was truly hypnotic.
While in recent years Low has increasingly experimented in the recording studio, adding additional effects, instruments, and even drum machines, it remains essentially a live band, and nothing of consequence was lost in translation. At the center was Parker, whose drumming forms the core of the band. Her kit is famously minimal, with only a floor tom, snare, and two cymbals (plus an occasional tambourine). But she gets a wonderful range of sounds and effects by using a variety of sticks and mallets, sounding at times like an orchestral percussionist. To her right was Sparhawk, who is the most animated of the trio and the de facto spokesperson of the band, though relatively few words were exchanged with the audience. In addition to his vocals on a majority of songs, his guitar playing is always interesting and varied, and rarely indulgent. Using a handsome vintage Danelectro Convertible, he had a rich and clear tone throughout. Garrington is the perfect complementary player, providing clean and steady bass lines while also balancing piano and organ touches, sometimes within a single song.
Though the performance was not quite sold out, Low drew a large and appreciative crowd for its only New York appearance. For a band that’s been around for over twenty years, I was surprised at how young much of the audience seemed, which suggests the band is definitely reaching new listeners. It can’t be an easy career path to follow, with such a hyper-specific, soul-searching muse, and for most of its career Low has been a classic cult band. But their persistence and willingness to grow in new directions seem to be paying off in the marketplace.
After the set finished and the band left the stage, there was a bit of a pregnant pause. It seemed as though Low were one of those bands that declined encores. But after a moment, the crowd started cheering for more, and Low obliged. For the few songs that followed, the band reached further back into its catalogue, delivering a glorious rendition of “In Metal,” from its 2002 Kranky release Trust, and concluding with “Words,” from its debut album I Could Live in Hope, a gorgeous song that could easily stand as the band’s calling card. It was a fitting conclusion to a masterful set which affirmed my belief that Low is one of the most original and accomplished bands working today.