Beer and Pavement

C’mon, Low

Posted in Records by SM on April 18, 2011

Slow-core[1] is like break-up sex when the divorce is long overdue. It’s all build-up, no climax. Sure, there is a release, but it’s without the euphoric joy typically associated with an orgasm. It’s sad throughout and mostly ends in disappointment.

Interestingly, one can’t spell “slow-core” without “Low.” The genre may have been made up just as a way to describe the band’s slow, methodically dirge into midwestern depression[2], but it’s stuck to the Duluth trio throughout the last two decades[3]. A Low record is slow and methodical. It rarely diverts from the dirges that dominate their discography. Because of this, Low fills a need to have music that isn’t always made for arenas or doesn’t always insight mosh pit violence. Still, as the band has developed over the years, they’ve let their inner Beatle sneak out.

Low is the bizarro Yo La Tengo[4]. Where YLT wears their pop sensibilities on their sleeve, Low buries them, only to unleash it at the least obvious moments. YLT get loud while Low keeps the volume…well…low. In many ways, Yo La Tengo represents New Jersey aggression just as well as Low represents midwestern repression.

In a lot of ways, C’mon is the quintessential Low record[5]. It’s not as angry or ambitious as 2007’s Drums & Guns or as perfectly depressing as the Christmas record they made several years back. It certainly doesn’t reach the depths of their early releases. What it does do is show slow-core as a diverse genre through variations in tempo and aesthetic.

Opener “Try to Sleep” is not really about sleep. In fact, I think the video above explains it pretty well[6]. Still, it’s a song that better describes Low’s overall output as more than just slow-core (whatever that is). It’s lovely in sentiment and aesthetic with its Christmas bells and steady pop melody. I’d go as far as saying it’s even quite beautiful although the lyrics are a bit ominous. You try to sleep and you never wake up. Alan Sparhawk has the kind of pretty male voice normally reserved for rather mundane adult contemporary pop but never sings about death, dying, or suicide. And in the background is the hauntingly present vocals of Mimi Parker. Seriously, this isn’t my favorite track of C’mon, but it could be their mainstream breakthrough in the band’s eighteenth year[7].

“You See Everything” is a surprisingly rich, 70’s era piece of gold. The only thing that makes this track sLow-core is the deliberate tempo that just carries you along. That and the story being told of an escape from a destructive relationship with a controlling partner. Despite the fact that this track is as pretty as the first, there is a subtle anger boiling beneath.

My favorite track of the record comes third and is, in my opinion, the most ominous of the bunch. “Witches” is an, slow dirge of a Low anthem. Sparhawk comes in low, calling out the one “who was taken down by God.” From there, epic battles between good and evil are eluded to in sinister detail. There’s even room for the faux soul indie rockers to be called out for their lack of authenticity and even soul. The track is frightening in a way only Low can achieve[8].

“Done” is a classically sparse Low duet that crawls to the top of the pews of the Catholic church in which it was recorded. “Especially Me” is what “When We Two Parted” would have sounded like had Greg Dulli been a woman[9]. If I ranked tracks, this might be my second-favorite of the record. Despite declaring that his love is for free, “$20” hits on a theme of undying love that carries on throughout C’mon. And when Low sings about “undying love,” the listener gets the feeling that the “dying” plays a pretty large role.

“Majesty/Magic” is one of those slow risers Low does so well. No band can build intensity the way they do. The only difference between them and most bands is that the build never really completely reaches crescendo. Here, they come pretty close as the track gets pretty loud and raucous just before it fades into a little feedback and a steady bassline[10].

The easy “Nightingale” follows with its almost jazzy guitar and easy drumming. This is a track for a summer evening. Of course, the time of day to which I’m referring is the terror twilight[11], that moment during dawn when it seems the world might end. Then, the sunlight lingers on for a bit and you take a sip of a cold iced tea or whatever we drink in the summertime[12].

“Nothing But Heart” does nothing but repeat the title over and over[13] as Low slowly builds to that slow-core crescendo that never comes[14]. The sense one gets from this song is a repeated phrase a jilted lover repeats over and over to somehow dissuade his love from leaving. It’s amazing what power a repeated phrase can hold. It may not do much to change someone’s mind, but it paints a pretty clear picture of the person doing the repeating and that impression is lasting.

The final track, “Something’s Turning Over,” is a nice back porch jam that feels like the last sing along of the evening. There are even children joining in at the end of the track. The song goes a long way in helping Low break free from the the slow-core label.

This album might not be the best thing you hear this year, but it certainly isn’t the worst. It’s hard to pinpoint anything wrong here. The acoustics of the church in which the band recorded adds an aura to the recording that makes Low’s sound bigger than it actually is. I really expected to not like this record, but it grows on me with every listen.

1I want to apologize first thing for using and overusing a tired, lazy made-up genre. Slow-core might be the laziest of all, but it’s apt as it’s been around for so long is most notably attached to this band. So, bare with me and don’t hold it against me for using “slow-core” when more precise language would be more honest.
2When Low arrived on the scene, music was dominated by grunge bands from the northwest. No one thought the midwest could do anything of note. Then, here was this band of Mormons from Duluth, Minnesota doing the exact opposite thing as Pearl Jam and it was good. People feel in the midwest too, god dammit.
3Two decades?!? That’s right. Indie bands from the nineties know how to extend careers better than anyone not named “The Rolling Stones.” Sure, some break up and reunite, but I’m talking about the Sonic Youths, Yo La Tengos, Built to Spills, etc. of the rock world. Indie rockers from this era figured out how to manage their careers, money, and chemical addictions to make a career out of playing for rooms of 200 people and selling a few thousand records a year. Low is just another band in a long list of indie artists who have made this thing work.
4I think there’s a lot to this. Both bands are lead by married couples. Low is Mormon. YLT is generally Jewish. There are similarities in the music they play without either band remotely sounding like the other. I think a cool project would be for one band to record the other’s five or so best songs and then put them both on a split 12″. Sorry. I just geeked out a bit.
5I don’t mean to say that C’mon is the quintessential slow-core record. That’s a very different thing. What I’m trying to say is that the record demonstrates the many assets Low has to offer. It’s as diverse as the band gets and covers a lot of ground in their discography. This is an early hint as to where I’m going with this review.
6Suicide. There, I said it. The song is about suicide or a couple dying together at the very least, but I still think it’s about suicide.
7How amazing is it that a band could have a breakthrough 18 years in? It doesn’t hurt that John Stamos is in the video and Entertainment Weekly debuted it.
8There is something that indie rockers who happen to be Christian (Sufjan Stevens, Danielson, Pedro the Lion, etc.) have figured out that Christian pop “artists” have not. The battle between good and evil within each of us is a dark, dark place we all must go. Being a Christian is not all rainbows and unicorns…er…you know what I mean. These artists accept the evil in all of us and deal with it. They deal with humanity and not just their religion as if humanity never existed.
9One might laugh at this thought, but listen to “My Curse” and tell me that the man knows nothing of women.
10Sometimes, less is more. Building, but never quite getting there leaves us wanting more.
11Yes, “terror twilight” is also the name of the Pavement album. The explanation behind the phrase certainly makes that record seem all the more ominous.
12I probably should have just gone with a beer, but that seemed too obvious. I’m thinking saison, something Belgian and sour/tart, or maybe a simple Bell’s Oberon.
13There is a brief intro, but it’s lost as soon as the repetition happens. I’m still not completely sure what he’s singing in those first couple lines.
14The electric guitar and the acoustics of the church in which Low recorded is chillingly awesome during this track. The echo and the reverb is pretty intense.

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