Low

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Low celebrates the vinyl re-issue of their famed holiday EP Christmas

:: Low ::
:: Larimer Lounge :: December 18 ::

By Matt Treon

Like most original art, Low’s music — characterized by minimalist arrangements intertwined with compelling instrumentation and alluring vocals — takes the route of redefinition-by-way-of-amalgamation. The Duluth, Minn. band’s influences are many, and they’ve melded them into a sound reminiscent of much but equated to very little.

The heartbeat of the band is its two founding members, Alan Sparhawk (guitar/vocals) and his wife, Mimi Parker (drums/vocals). The pulsing quality of their rhythmic interplay and their arresting vocal harmonies have become staples of Low’s sound. And whether they’re leaning on a single guitar and soft voices, or experimenting with a drum machine and electro-acoustic loops, Low writes good, wholehearted songs.

The primary catalyst for the band’s December West Coast tour is the vinyl reissue of their Christmas EP (Kranky, 1999). There aren’t too many phenomenons in the history of music more interesting than the almighty ‘Christmas album.’ If done poorly, such an album is doomed to be immediately swept into the minutia of the holiday sound where everything is the same; if done well, it can stand as testament to an artist’s uniqueness of ability. What Low’s Christmas does is show just how unique their usual sound is by showing how much they’re actually capable of as musicians — the sonic topography of the album could hardly be more varied or full of character.

The opening track of Christmas, “It Was Just Like Christmas,” is a pop-driven wall of acoustic guitar, horns, and percussive texture that sounds like it’s being steered by ’60s-era Phil Spector, with Mimi Parker’s seraphic voice hovering just overhead. Low’s melancholic, but by no means despondent rendition of “Little Drummer Boy,” with its fuzzy organ, reverb-heavy snare drum, and lush, layered vocal harmonies, is more typical of Low’s sound, but not at all a typical version of the song. “Blue Christmas,” written by Billy Hayes and Jay W. Johnson, and solidified as a part of the canon of Christmas music by Elvis Presley in 1957, is quite easily the biggest surprise on the album. It showcases Parker’s vocals, and her heartbreaking performance is reminiscent of Patsy Cline (a comparison that would otherwise never be used for Low) and easily fit for the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. The other highlight of the song is Alan Sparhawk’s guitar solo. It’s a quick run through the song’s main melody that employs the signature Low restraint, leaving an almost painful amount of silent space between some of the notes; it’s a perfect lachrymose response to the call of Parker’s voice.

Along with Christmas songs, the band will be playing songs from their entire catalog, as well as a few offerings from their recently finished new album tentatively called C’mon, and slated for a April, 2011 release.

“There’s more guitar, piano and real drums versus [the last album],” said Sparhawk during a recent conversation with The Marquee. “It’s lush, and very large. But it’s hard to say if it will be a complete deviation, or what the new step is, because we’re sort of looking out of the forest from the trees.”

One of those trees is in the form of a relatively new instrument for Sparhawk. Since the band’s last album Drums and Guns (Sub Pop, 2007), the artist has added a baritone guitar, which, because of its longer scale length, allows it to be tuned to a  lower range. “I used it on two or three songs,” he said. “I had a couple songs that never sounded right until I transposed them to the baritone.”

Low also has a new bass player, Steve Garrington, who contributed some piano and organ to the recordings, as well as being a third voice in the songwriting process. According to Sparhawk, it’s “vital” for him and Parker to have that balance.“I think left on our own we would probably eat each other’s arms off,” he said.

Country blues musician Charlie Parr, also from Low’s hometown of Duluth, will be opening for the band, as well as joining them onstage during the Christmas set.

Coming from Duluth, Low seems meant to provide a soundtrack for winter. “There’s something about growing up in a place where every year there’s this monolithic sort of thing that comes along,” Sparhawk said. “It’s the only thing I know, and when the music’s working it’s very close to that same feeling of driving through a blizzard and having to drive slow, and knowing you’re going to be there a while, and the isolation. But there is a whole country north of us that lives under these conditions all year and yet they still produce Alanis Morissette and Bryan Adams, so you never know. But Duluth is also very Scandinavian. You keep your feelings inside, don’t let out too much.”

And, ironically, that may be what prompted Sparhawk to make music in the first place. This idea of wanting to share and give something to listeners that they can be a part of is clearly stated in the liner notes of Christmas, where it asks Low’s fans to “consider this our gift to you.”

:: Low ::

:: Larimer Lounge :: December 18 ::

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