Low @ Turner Hall Ballroom
Nov. 24, 2012
Much of this feeling was due to Low’s decision to begin their set with a handful of new songs, which, as vocalist/guitarist Alan Sparhawk informed the crowd, the group had just finished recording. While the band often displays a gentle demeanor on stage, these songs found Sparhawk and drummer/vocalist Mimi Parker appearing not only subdued, but almost medicated. None of these songs sounded fully formed and all of them relied heavily on repetition and cliché (the set’s second song found Sparhawk both “waiting like a child” and seeing “beyond the smile.”) Low’s songwriting process has always been informed by a profound sense of starkness, but now this starkness has been replaced by sheer simplicity. And while the voices of both Sparhawk and Parker have never sounded better, the material they are now presenting is veering dangerously close to the realm of adult contemporary.
The band’s older material held up much better. Inspired performances of “Sunflower” (from 2001’s Things We Lost in the Fire), “(That’s How You Sing) Amazing Grace” (from 2002’s Trust), and “Murderer” (from 2007’s Drums and Guns) reminded the audience of the intensity that Sparhawk is able to pack into such unadorned songs. Even songs from Low’s more recent, and less celebrated, releases sounded strong. Both “Nightingale” and “Witches,” from 2011’s C’mon, held their own in comparison to the band’s more renowned tracks.
At their best, Low successfully captured the dread and uncertainty now associated with the end of the millennium and the immediate post-9/11 world. The fact that their songs were often infused with religious imagery—Sparhawk and Parker are practicing Mormons—only made such material all the more compelling. But more than a decade removed from those events, such sentiments seem dated, and even a bit innocuous. At the same time, the movement that Low (quietly) launched in the early 1990s has now fully matured, producing acts like Bon Iver who are pushing indie rock in new directions. Low’s set reminded listeners of what they have accomplished, but it also brought forth a question that one hates to ask such an important band: Are they still relevant?