Odd to think that at one point, much to their chagrin, Low were considered the progenitors of the “slowcore” movement. Emerging from Duluth, MN in the early ’90s, contemporaneous with the halcyon days of grunge, the band were a more than welcome respite from that genre’s bombastic, angst-fueled fervor. They crafted languid ballads that were the focal point instead of a diversion from frenetic rockers.
Low debuted in 1994 with I Could Live In Hope, produced in NYC by Kramer (Galaxie 500, Jad Fair), the sessions of which frontman Alan Sparhawk recalled fondly in a 2005 Big Takeover interview, poking fun at the band’s Midwest roots while laughing that, “Kramer called us farmers as he was yelling at us.” But the fruits of those sessions, along with its 1995 follow-up Long Division, provided a template for the band — smoldering numbers equally beholden to the hushed balladry of the Velvet Underground as the elegiac drone of Joy Division. Sparhawk’s wife Mimi Parker added resplendent vocals and Mo Tucker-esque drums (her threadbare kit consisted of a snare and high hat) alongside gently plucked high register bass lines. But what most differentiated Low was their sheer dedication to songcraft, and an uncanny use of space. What was left out of the tracks was as equally integral to the arrangements as what was included.
The band moved on to producer Steve Fisk for the release of 1996’s The Curtain Hits The Cast. It was something of a transitional album for the act, their last for quasi-major Vernon Yard before departing to the venerable indie Kranky Records.
On their full-length debut for the Chicago-based label, 1999’s Secret Name, they worked with producer Steve Albini. As Sparhawk said of Albini in our Big Takeover interview, “If it’s crap with Steve, you only have yourself to blame, because that crap was recorded as well and as great-sounding as it’s ever going to be.” Albini’s hand-off approach paid dividends on both that album’s spartan ethos, and even more so on the ornate chamber balladry of Things We Lost In The Fire, the band’s masterpiece to date.
2002’s Trust found the band again switching gears, enlisting Tchad Blake as producer to decidedly mixed results, but serving as something as a testing ground for a more roughshod sound they’d explore in the very near future. The band again switched producers, and labels, for their Sub Pop debut The Great Destroyer, helmed by Dave Fridmann in 2005. This was a turning point for Low, and the first time they’d emphasized choruses and hooks so adroitly. Fridmann also produced 2007’s Drums And Guns, which is easily the most bizarre and esoteric record the band have created.
2011’s C’mon found the band toying with a more classicist, conventional sound, a trend that continued on their most recent LP, the Jeff Tweedy-produced The Invisible Way. The Invisible Way is perhaps Low’s most accessible album to date, and exhibits just what fine songwriters Sparhawk and Parker have become, comfortable veering between protean genres, with flux and evolution having become the name of the game for them stylistically, a far cry from the potent slowcore tag that they were unfairly dogged by for more than a decade.
Having long been a favorite of musicians, including Radiohead and Wilco, both of whom Low have opened for, and Robert Plant, who covered a few of their tracks on 2010’s Band Of Joy, commercial success has still largely eluded Low. Nevertheless, they’ve provided us with one of the most impressive and rewarding discographies of the past 20 years. Let’s look it over.
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