There are worse problems an artist can have than being pretty much perfect. For every half a dozen bands with an early catalog that betters their latter day works, there are only one or two like Low who have managed to explore new sounds while more or less retaining what made their earliest albums so exciting. Or maybe exciting is the wrong word, since Low’s chief characteristic in those early years was a resistance to brightening the tempos or filling the space of their arrangements with anything more than, well, space.
But with their 2005 debut on Sub Pop, The Great Destroyer, the band began to show something more than the restlessness that began to show itself on 1999’s Secret Name (Kranky). They began to sound more like an honest-to-God rock band, but then 2007’s Drums and Guns (Sub Pop) was a step chillier, with a great deal of electronic and even krautrock-y elements. In shorthand, The Great Destroyer was their rock record, Drums and Guns their edgy, political record.
In many ways, C’mon is more difficult to categorize than those two previous efforts — its breadth encompasses the big but cool-to-the-touch “Try To Sleep,” the grindingly vicious “Witches,” and the intimate doo-wop of “Done.” As ever, the key dynamic rests between guitarist/vocalist Alan Sparhwak and drummer/vocalist Mimi Parker — there’s something both comforting and challenging in their vocal interplay. Throughout, the songs are executed with a veteran band’s inerrant sense of balance between roughness and assuredness; in places, amps crackle and held vocal notes show their grain, banjos crinkle up from the background noise, and Alan Sparhawk clears his throat at the beginning of “Especially Me.” Yet all the incidental noise is left unvarnished in the way a capable film director will know when a slip-up is what makes a take.
The single most fascinating track is the eight-minute-plus “Nothing But Heart.” The cut begins with Sparhawk audibly plugging in his guitar and slashing through an epic and epically distorted progression, the guitar sounding more in line with his work in side project Retribution Gospel Choir. But just as suddenly, the guitar is restrained, crackles of electricity pinging in the background and Sparhawk’s voice rising up slowly as bass, then drums, then acoustic guitar begin to shuffle in. By a minute-and-a-half in, the lyrics are done, arrested in mid-chorus and looping endlessly on the refrain of the title. It’s a brilliant and bold move, the song swelling as steel guitar rides in, and by the time the giant overdriven guitar returns in force with a countermelody at four-and-a-half minutes, the song is unstoppable. It seems like a consolidation of some of the band’s recent palette-broadening (including Sparhawk’s side project work) and their earlier, more delicate and open aesthetic.
And so, in a long and thoroughly impressive career, C’mon may not be authoritative or a classic; if Low were a Russian novelist, it would be more Demons than The Brothers Karamazov, more late-period excellent than career-defining. But fortunately for us, Low’s last chapter is far from written.Visit: Low | Sub Pop
Purchase: Insound | eMusic