Release Date: Apr 12, 2011
Record label: Sub Pop
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock, Slowcore
I don’t think it’s right to speculate too closely or seriously about the mental states and the personal lives of the musicians we love, by which I mean both that 1. I think it’s invasive and illegitimate and a little icky and 2. I don’t think it works. It’s an open question whether we really know those closest to us, so the idea that we can discern the innermost thoughts, desires, and intentions of someone we don’t know through lyrics, melodies, and interviews borders on the ridiculous or the insane.
Sometimes a step backwards is a step in the right direction. Over the past half-decade Minnesotan Mormons Low have gone to some very dark places both personally and professionally, culminating in a decidedly mixed response to the harsh electronic tone of their last album Drums and Guns, and the shake-up of the band's previously stable line-up as husband and wife and core duo Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker parted company with several bass players. However, C'mon, their first album in four years is, as the name would suggest, a much more inviting prospect.
It’s testament to Low’s consistent excellence that, nearly 20 years into their career, they remain untroubled by accusations of staleness or irrelevance. In fact, the excitement surrounding the release of C’mon, their ninth studio album, is positively tangible. And that excitement is certainly justified, for C’mon is an intriguing, essential addition to their discography, one which might even propel the Minnesotans towards much wider renown.
On its previous two albums for Sub Pop, Low experimented with new directions—the sound had already expanded, but began adding more rock and pop. C’mon isn’t exactly a return to the old Low, but rather wraps together everything the band has been doing lately with everything it has become known for. The band is best when playing to a slow build and climax, which C’mon does beautifully, both as a whole and on individual songs (“Nothing But Heart”).
The second or third time I listened to “Try to Sleep,” the lead track on Low’s new album, it became lodged in my head for the rest of the day. Not just playing somewhere in the subconscious background, mind you, but blaring right at the forefront. I couldn’t stop humming the melody, walking in rhythm to that slow-mo beat, even air-drumming a little fill of my own as I went.
Recorded in a church in Low's hometown of Duluth, Minnesota, the indie rock trio's ninth studio album is a return to what they do best: glimmering, ghostly pop songs founded on Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk's quiet, unmistakable vocal harmonies. Years of crafting gloomy melodies left the band struggling with the extremes of their sound on their last few albums, sometimes to fantastic results. There was The Great Destroyer's unexpectedly storming rock, followed by the minimalism of 2007's Drums And Guns.
No one has ever listened to Low expecting boundless good cheer, but the dour beauty of their best work -- Secret Name, Things We Lost in the Fire, and Trust -- made something deeply rewarding out of the fragile sorrow of their spare melodies and Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker's voices. However, the bigger and more sonically diverse sound of Low's two albums with producer Dave Fridmann, The Great Destroyer and Drums and Guns, tended to reinforce the increasingly dark and chaotic tone of the group's songwriting, and what once seemed quietly sad now seemed more than a bit troubling. So it's both surprising and reassuring that Low's ninth studio album, C'mon, is also the most hopeful music they've released in quite some time.
Getting a new Low album in the early spring feels inappropriate in the same way that falling in love at a funeral might. Low’s melancholic rock is wintry and nocturnal, a musical approximation of watching the sun set at four in the afternoon—a sight with which the Minnesotan indie veterans are surely familiar. But that’s not to say that C’mon is a case study in Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Following the stinging anti-war cry of their last album, Drums and Guns, Low's latest is an entreaty to join the slowcore pioneers as they explore inner turmoil. Recorded in the same converted Catholic church as 2002's agenda-changing Trust, C'mon sees the choral harmonies and hymn-like melodies of husband and wife team Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker emboldened by the vocal and keyboard prowess of new bassist Steve Garrington and the pop cunning of co-producer Matt Beckley. Fear-spiked lullabies Try to Sleep and Something's Turning Over are unsettling bookends to an accessible and intimate return to form hampered only by frustratingly weak lyrics.
There was a time, not so long ago, when Alan Sparhawk, eccentric lead singer of Low, talked of being sick of the idea of “Low,” and the aesthetic confines that go with that name. The glacial tempos, the quiet volumes, the people sitting down at the concerts, the everything. Not coincidentally, Sparhawk’s difficulties with being in Low happened around when he had a nervous breakdown, and Low issued their loudest (and most hated) LP, 2005’s The Great Destroyer.
The short version of the pre-release trailer for Low's C'mon was nothing but a still shot of Alan Sparhawk, sitting at a table in front of a microphone with headphones on, slapping the surface in time with music we can't hear. The space between slaps is long, allowing the sound to reverberate around the church he's sitting in. I wondered if the trailer's spartan approach might signal a return to the band's earliest days, when 39 seconds of slow, cavernously reverberating percussion might have constituted the intro of a song.
Slowcore. If your band of choice favors meandering soundscapes, glacial atmospheres, or plodding tempos, odds are good that the s-word has appeared more than once in reviews of their albums. If said band is Low, then the term seems particularly banal; for all of the hypnotic melodies, quaking textures, and riveting harmonies that husband/wife team Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker have actualized over the course of 17 years and 8 LPs, there’s been unfair attention paid to their flair for taking more than 5 minutes (eons in pop music) to get to the damn point.