Smile Politely

Low finds spaces between the sounds

Low is my favorite band.

I accidentally walked in on a set in 1995. It was the old Blind Pig. A few people were chatting. The talk was louder than the music. The band appeared pained by the inattention.

Alan Sparhawk fingers a bright, punchy electric guitar tuned DGCGCD (cf. Led Zeppelin’s “The Rain Song”). His wife Mimi (Mih-mee) brushes a floor tom, snare and ride cymbal. They take turns singing, except when they sing simultaneously. They always have a third wheel playing bass. After a decade with Zak Sally, they’ve entered a Poster Childrian period of revolving musicians filling the role of bassist. I don’t even know the current guy. I could Google it, I guess.

I consider Low not so much a trio of musicians, but a restatement of spatial relativity. A thousand critics already said it: Instead of barraging the listener with sounds, Low makes each note count. The space between the sounds is as important as the sound itself.

But this is not math rock. This is not experimental sound. It’s melody, harmony and time. It’s also not nearly so quiet as people think. Low has been making fairly loud music for a decade. But Low is still best defined by those moments when minuscule sounds pierce absolute silences.

Your understanding of the music won’t improve if you know that Alan is Mormon. (It might help reconcile the words.) Your understanding might improve if you know that Alan lapses from Mormonism, and into depression. His muse evidently visits in good times and bad. Alan’s agony-exuberance produces the most harrowing combination of sounds; nicer than a death rattle, more welcome than the wail of the banshee, evocative as either.

As I kneel at their altar, I should add that I don’t like any Low albums as albums. Like Blur (and Poster Children), Low’s brilliant material comes packaged with much cereal filler. I consider these groups foundational, album-craft notwithstanding. As Rick Valentin pointed out to me, albums are a commercially-inspired device.

I am not alone in my worship. Thom Yorke, for example, feels the same way about Low. He invited them to open for Radiohead.

But Low is not for everybody. Unlike rockabilly, Americana, blues or even Brit-influenced jangle-pop, there is no RIYL with Low. Nevertheless, declaring oneself a Low fan invariably leads friends to recommend plodding slo-core groups, seemingly on the basis of boringness. In fact, Low fans might not like much of any music. The primary attraction to Low is that their sounds are sui generis.

But I cannot overemphasize the breathtaking beauty.

Low performs at Channing-Murray Foundation at 9:00 p.m. on Friday September 18. Tickets are first come, first served and are $15 at the door.

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