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Low: The Great Destroyer

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alan, mimi, and zak (with child and monkey, picture by karl raschke and courtesy sub pop
Photo by Karl Raschke, courtesy Sub Pop

Low’s music has always rewarded careful listening, and its tempos have famously permitted it. Having been lumped in with the slowcore movement for their beautiful and glacial music, the band’s name conjures thoughts of songs that move with geological speed.

But it’s reductionist to think of them as slowcore. The other ingredients in their musical mix include memorable melodic lines, a sure sense of timbre and atmosphere, drones, the haunting vocal harmonies of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, the anchoring bass of Zak Sally, and an underappreciated sense of humor that has led them to cover songs by the Misfits and Journey.

All are the real musical arrows in Low’s quiver and all of it was documented on last year’s b-sides compilation, A Lifetime of Temporary Relief). With the tempo positively frantic by the standards of past performances on Long Division, those arrows find their mark in The Great Destroyer.

The album merits a song-by-song review, if only because the band’s musical experimentation causes them to stretch in many different directions at once.

The album opener, “Monkey” starts with a wave of fuzzed-out bass, and the bass and guitar stay snarling at the front of the mix throughout. “California” is, by contrast, a slice of sunny pop with memorable harmonies and an oddly hooky chorus (“You had to sell the farm/And go to California where it’s warm”).

The song falters a bit as it pulls the energy back in the last bridge, turning what would otherwise be a perfect single into just a great song. The same style plus a dash of guitar line a la U2’s the Edge, informs “Just Stand Back,” a little later in the album, and is deconstructed with distorted vocals, odd stereo placements, hand claps, and crunching guitar lines on “Step.”

“Everybody’s Song” is menacing as it embraces an abrasive guitar riff (oddly reminiscent of the one from Sun Kil Moon’s “Lily and Parrots”) and angry minor-third vocal harmonies over some seriously pounding bass drums.

By contrast, “Silver Rider” sounds like old Low, circa Things We Lost in the Fire;pleasant and maybe necessary after the preceding three tracks.

Then there’s “On the Edge Of…”

The song sounds like the band was listening to a bunch of old Neil Young records. It has that same crazed/pining dichotomy to its structure and to the sound and the lead guitar hook paired to Sparhawk’s high, thin tenor conjures visions of Freedom. The same contrast informs ‘Pissing,” “Broadway (So Many People),” and “When I Go Deaf,” which sounds less like “a melding of Low’s varied styles together into a single song” (as Sub Pop writes in the blurb for the album) than a manifesto that declares that beautiful delicate vocal lines and aggressive guitar solos needn’t live in separate worlds.

The closer track, “Walk into the Sea,” explores the same territory by foregrounding Mimi Parker’s drumming against the delicate melody line.

The album isn’t as much of a departure for the group as it is a needed evolution. Their last album, Trust, sounded constrained by their slow-drone formula and laid bare a few too many of their influences. The Great Destroyer opens up some promising new directions for the band. It also promises that they will follow more than a few of them in albums to come, which is the best news of all.

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About Timothy Jarrett

  • http://www.templestark.com/blog Temple Stark

    Timothy J,

    I just learned how to add a cutline to a photo. Neato.

    I point you to the Alabama music review site of Advance.net.

    Your review’s up there, loud and proud. Please go and tell your contacts that hundreds of thousands more readers will now have access to your review.

  • http://selfaudit.blogspot.com Aaman

    What is a cutline, and how do you add it? Do you mean something like “br clear=all”?

  • Eric Olsen

    very very nice review Tim, I am now inclined to go back and listen to my Low Cds, which have lain fallow for some time – thanks!

  • http://www.jarretthousenorth.com/ Tim Jarrett

    This is of course off topic, but I think Temple is referring to the caption under the photo. You basically wrap the whole thing in a float; view source on the post to see how it’s done.

  • http://www.templestark.com/blog Temple Stark

    cutline=caption

  • http://selfaudit.blogspot.com Aaman

    Sounds like a good band with a rich ouevre just waiting for me to discover them. Where do I start?

  • http://www.jarretthousenorth.com/ Tim Jarrett

    There’s no greatest hits for them, but my recommendations would be the new album, “Secret Name,” and “Things We Lost In The Fire,” in that order. I think their site (http://www.chairkickers.com) and the Sub Pop site both have some downloads if you want to give them a listen.

    And of course there’s their Christmas album, which I reviewed here a while back:
    http://blogcritics.org/archives/2003/12/08/144716.php

  • stephen

    don’t forget “the curtain hits the cast”.