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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Wrath of Low

The notoriously quiet band sharpens its teeth

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"Murderer," the climactic highlight of Low’s latest album, Drums and Guns, reads like the transcript of one of the president’s most disturbing talks with God. “One more thing I’ll ask you, Lord,” singer Alan Spearhawk impassively volunteers, “you may need a murderer/ someone to do your dirty work.”

“Don’t act so innocent!” Spearhawk seethes, turning accusatory. “I’ve seen you pound your fist into the Earth/ and I’ve read your book!” The narrator is hell-bent on killing, with or without permission from a higher power.

Like most of Drums and Guns, the song is violent and brutal— slow, yes, but also heavy and brooding. The sheer viciousness of the track would almost certainly surprise anyone who only knew of Low from reading about them. For more than a decade, snickering naysayers dismissed the Duluth, Minn., trio as a novelty: a slowcore group fronted by a harmonizing husband and wife that often perform for cult-like, seated audiences. Although accurate, that description does little to capture the turbulence and volatility in Low’s music, traits which over the years have become more pronounced.

Their tempos remained, in a word that unfortunately became synonymous with the band, “glacial,” but with each release Spearhawk cranked up his guitar that much louder, defiantly obscuring the rest of the mix. And for 2005’s The Great Destroyer, Low went a step further: The band best known for minimalist hymnals they recorded in their own basement recruited producer David Fridmann, the modern-day Phil Spector responsible for saturating The Flaming Lips’ latter-day records in symphonics.

“We’d be in the studio with him looking at all the machines, saying, ‘I’m not so sure about this,’” recalls Low drummer/co-vocalist Mimi Parker, “but he was very excited, pushing us along saying, ‘No! Try this! Try this!’ “He challenged us, which was probably necessary,” Parker added. “For a while there, we really were recording safely in our comfort zone, and we needed to get out of it.”

Although that album was in many respects a repudiation of everything Low had recorded until that point, there was little in the way of backlash from longtime listeners. Low’s fans are a loyal lot, which is a luxury that Parker says affords the group so much freedom to experiment.

While The Great Destroyer reinvented the band, Drums and Guns, Low’s 2007 Fridmann-produced follow-up, is the culmination of everything Low has ever recorded. It balances the uncomfortable intimacy of their early work with the grandiosity of their mid-period output, and it also nods to The Great Destroyer’s experimentation by pushing their sound in a new, more modern direction. Persistent, looped drums skitter throughout the album, lending another layer of tension to the band’s bleakest set of songs yet.

Accompanied by militaristic drums and baleful guitar squeals, the stark proclamation that “all the soldiers/ they’re all gonna die,” opens the album, and the lyrics only turn darker from there: “And all the little babies/ they’re all gonna die.”

Parker contends that the songs on Drums and Guns are still decidedly personal, but concedes there’s also a pointed political edge this time out. The post-Sept. 11 disillusionment that past Low albums only hinted at has finally boiled over.

“The album is our delayed response to world events,” Parker says. “We read the papers like everyone else, and it got to the point where we couldn’t ignore what’s been happening. It’s been five years now since we started the Iraq war, and we’re approaching 4,000 dead American soldiers. It’s hard to forget that.”

Low plays an 8 p.m. show at Turner Hall Ballroom with openers the Scotland Yard Gospel Choir on Friday, March 28.
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