Sparhawk and Parker, the married couple at the helm of the Duluth-based Low, spawned their own genre in the mid-nineties. At the height of the grunge era, Low’s magisterial shift into underdrive was a candle that cursed the darkness in a way a thousand flannel-shirted bellowers never could. The scribes called it slowcore. Countering that prevailing wall-of-distorted-sound aesthetic with glacial minimalism, Low’s songs shimmered like puddles in a canyon. After more than twenty years and thirteen full-length records, Low’s songs of faith, love and doom have gained the adoration of a committed base. They’ve toured with Radiohead and been covered by Robert Plant.
Yet, unlike so much music that’s considered rock, indie or otherwise, rhythm is never the driving force. There’s an essential pulse, but you rarely get the ease of a backbeat. You’re forced to contemplate the sound, and that is the point. One has to give over to the meditative aspect.
On Wednesday night at Cat’s Cradle, a hushed reverence was palpable throughout both sets of what, Sparhawk admitted, was just a usual set stretched out into two. I heard one slightly diffident request for “Amethyst!" One guy, perhaps reacting to the quiet, yelled out, “I just felt like I had to yell something, so I did.” This led to a couple of awkward moments, as Sparhawk determined what had been said and found himself at a loss for an appropriate rejoinder. Sparhawk, the ostensible frontman, possesses the band’s lone inclination toward showmanship, but even when manipulating a seamless solo with his teeth, the move felt more like a sonic experiment than a showboating move.
The set ranged from the band's 1994 debut, I Could Live in Hope
(“Words” was absolutely stunning) to a chunk of the recent Ones and Sixes.
showcased Low’s dynamic range, from recent near-pastoral folk numbers to 33-BPM crawls that accrue weight and sometimes flirt with chaos.
Abetted by fuzz pedal, looper, and other devices, Sparhawk demonstrated complete familiarity with his 1960s vintage Danelectro Convertible guitar—a rare hollow-body electric model, with a different neck than the one nature intended. He used no pick, mostly thumb, to strum, flick and stir up Duane Eddy tonalities. The instrument’s headstock was topped with a frisson of untrimmed string ends, as if to keep any and all sonic possibilities available.
Mimi Parker’s singing remains a marvel, almost shocking in its unwavering rightness of tone and pitch and volume, whether nestling beneath Alan’s grain or on its own, where it’s even more stunning. Her facial expression changes very little, even when she’s delivering sustained notes, adding a sphinx-like element to her presence behind that minimal drum kit. On a lovely yet still somehow plaintive cover of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” abetted by a programmed rhythm, Parker’s vocal put me in mind of Yo La Tengo's eternal cool and its catholic taste in covers.
After the culminating “Landslide” (at nine minutes-plus, it’s the longest track on Ones and Sixes
), Sparhawk introduced multi-instrumentalist Steve Garrington familiarly as “Steve-o,” then added, “This is Mimi. My name’s Alan.”
That would have been it, should have been it, but the show ended on a fourth-wall-breaking moment. Alan inquired as to where the merch table was set up.
“Down the street,” came the jesting response.
Long, Low-ish pause, then, “No, seriously,” said Alan. “Where is it?”
The vocal admixture of Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk soothes and unsettles. They are people of faith, but they are definitely not here to comfort you: "All you innocents/make a run for it," they sing, or "Tonight the monkey dies.”