What disturbs and thrills me about Low is the violence at their core. It’s a very American violence, clenched and hard and lonely. And religious, too. For these believers (two-thirds of the trio), God is not just a metaphorical leftover, a gospel music hand-me-down. When Alan Sparhawk sneers “Don’t act so innocent/I’ve seen you pound your fist into the earth/And I’ve read your books”, he means it. Judgement and redemption are real.
That song is called ‘Murderer’, and last tour (circa 2006) it was just a solo, sung by Sparhawk with no accompaniment aside from the disturbing glint in his eye. This time it’s flourished, via last year’s Drums & Guns, an album which couches its more explicit references to death and disorder in a sweet fuzz of guitar and, new for Low, delicate electronic beats. Live, it sheds that honeyed ambiguity, Mimi Parker’s austere drums being the main factor in a considerably darkened atmosphere. There’s an emotional precision to her playing that no programming will ever replace, I think: she can hit a floor tom like she’s administering a slap to the face. And yet she remains so still, she and bassist Matt Livingston, while Sparhawk is a live wire of twitching and grimaces.
Vocal harmonies charge the musical connection between husband and wife both on stage and on record, and there’s no getting around it, Sparhawk and Parker’s voices are made for each other. I could listen to them all day, singing their grocery list, their voices two contour lines with an octave or so of space between them. It’s the space that’s so crucial: Sparhawk hangs back from the microphone while Parker takes the lead on ‘Point of Disgust’, adding a distant falsetto on particular words. Livingston switches from bass to grand piano, playing a simple chordal arrangement. Sure, there’s not much to it, and the band know it – “This is another one where we don’t play much, and we sing”, says Sparhawk at one point – but nuance is everything. They can move from the aching poignancy of ‘When I Go Deaf’ – a song about not wanting to write songs anymore – to the comparatively joyous ‘Last Snowstorm Of The Year’, where their long-held debt to Galaxie 500 comes to the fore in a brief flurry of distortion and pop melody.
The highlight of this evening’s set (as of the evening before’s) is ‘Take Your Time’, another Drums & Guns track with a significantly greater impact in a live setting than on record. In the passive, sit-down atmosphere of The Spiegeltent the sudden raise in volume registers in your body; you shift forward, while the twin vocals, stripped of their studio bedding, sing of bad messes and holy ghosts. Every Low song seems to take place in aftermath, as if each was a survey of a crime scene – crimes on the both the human and cosmic level. Rather than shelter from violence the band match it, Sparhawk’s guitar a controlled crunch and Parker’s cymbals shimmering like a malevolent mist. Between songs the trio are endearingly human, joking to each other, Sparhawk complementing their silently attentive audience as “awfully nice” in his Minnesota twang. But when they play they transcend themselves.
By Emmy Hennings