Things We Lost In The Fire
By: Eric G.
Low is one of those bands that I never really want to listen to, but I'm always glad when I do. I just never seem to be in the mood for music so deliberately laborious. When I'm packing CD's for a road trip, for example, it never occurs to me to put a Low disc in with the bunch. Perhaps, it's my subconscious telling me I'd surely drive off the road in a torpor. Needless to say, I treated the arrival of the new Low album with little fanfare- that is until I listened to it.
Low's musical evolution has been as slow and nuanced as one of its (in)famous dirges. The band's philosophy has always been less is more, particularly when it comes to instrumentation, and that ethos has firmly cemented the band into a genre that perpetuates my natural bias against anything stubbornly slow. There's a built-in audience of coffeehouse posers, of course, that love to talk about Communism and sit on the floor at Damon And Naomi shows that will eat this up, but Low's appeal should extend much further than watered-down stereotypes would guarantee.
With music this sparse, there's little room for trickery. Low's bread and butter is its sense of harmony. The music is both hypnotic and severe, and while it rarely rises above the sound of rushing water, its stillness is more shocking than the wall of tuneless noise at any given moment on MTV. Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker have delicate voices that cling to notes and ride the crescendo. Their minimalist style certainly recalls Galaxie 500's lazy resignation, but Low takes its slowness to a monumental peak in almost every single song.
Things We Lost In The Fire is by far the band's most accomplished and darkest album. The production is fuller, and the songs themselves are more mellifluous. "Sunflower" actually steps up the band's typical beats-per-minute average to a moderately breezy tempo. The chorus is nothing short of majestic: "bought some sweet/sweet/sweet/sweet sunflowers/and gave them to the night." Strings and keyboards add texture and drama to the simple, repetitive arrangement, but it's Sparhawk and Parker's harmony that sends shivers down the spine. "Dinosaur Act" has an uplifting aura despite being unremittingly slow. The booming snare accompanies a slightly gritty guitar progression while Sparhawk and Parker's voices rise above the thunderous refrain. It's beautiful but not pretty as "pretty" implies something ephemeral and weak while "beautiful" suggests something more sinewy- something deeper and more imposing, and this song is musically akin to its title.
Mimi Parker has a lovely voice, but her solo songs tend to outstay their welcome. She obviously likes the sound of her own voice, and the vocal histrionics, however subtle, stick out like a sore thumb in music this bare. "Lazer Beam" is hardly offensive, but it lacks the tension inherent to songs in which Sparhawk sings the lead. And "Embrace" sacrifices tension for melodrama. Parker's voice serves much better as an accompaniment. "July" is a perfect example. Sparhawk's boyish strain sounds absolutely otherworldly when Parker chimes in with "they'll never wake us in time."
The band experimented with orchestral arrangements on 1999's Secret Name, but on this album the orchestration is fully formed. To Low's credit, it still manages to make each song sound distant and elemental. That is to say the orchestrated arrangements don't bog the music down in murky, unnecessary layers. The songwriting is more cohesive and, dare I say, catchy. "Kind Of Girl" has a Simon And Garfunkle tinge to its lullaby-style guitar pluckings. It's instantly familiar and memorable as is "Like A Forest" with its string accompaniment, light, airy gait, and dour but climactic vocal melody.
Low hasn't ventured so far as to alienate its base with its denser sound, but Things We Lost In The Fire surely stands out from any of the band's previous work- perhaps, not immediately or even after the first few listens, but these songs get under your skin with repetition. I doubt I'll ever hesitate to listen to this album – or Low – ever again.