Hood used to be quaint. When the West Yorkshire–based group wanted to make a record, whatever part of its revolving membership was on hand got together, recorded a few 30-second to 2-minute ditties at home, had 500 or 1,000 copies pressed by a friend as a limited-edition 7-inch, and moved on. The lo-fi sound, the aching lyrics that provided a shattered window into band auteur Chris Adams’ soul, the pictures of windmills and power lines and fields on the covers—it was all so…small. Even when the group released a B-sides-and-rarities compilation in 2003, the first few copies came complete with a hand-numbered Polaroid. Those who acted quickly enough could feel as if they really were Hood Fan No. 24 of 120.
But by then things had already started to seem a little different. In 2001, Hood had released Cold House, the masterful, mind-blowing album every early adopter just knew the band had been shambling toward for the past 11 years. On it, Adams & Co. took the simple pop tunes and startling blasts of noise that characterized their early catalog and matched them to the glitchy electronics that were then all the rage. Indie barometer Pitchfork gave the album an 8.5 out of 10, calling it “one of the most innovative releases of the past year.” The NME hailed it as “uniformly excellent,” adding that “[f]ew, if any, British bands are making music quite like this right now.” For old-timers, it was a vindication—a cold, clear, dark work that proved the band could swim just fine in the indie mainstream, thank you very much. For the first time, according to Chris’ brother and longtime collaborator Richard Adams, a significant number of people cared about what might come next.
OK, maybe not the limited-edition 7-inches. But certainly the album—which, it turns out, begins with what might be considered a warning to recently acquired fans. In the first real song on the new Outside Closer, Chris sings, “You need to go/To the furthest place from your house.” It’s a hint: What’s about to happen here isn’t intended to be much like that breakthrough record from a few years back. Having already shown its ability to make great, if not entirely accessible, pop music, Hood has taken a time-honored and troubling step: smoothing out the rough spots. Gone are the imperfections that so endeared the band to the small number of fans who could claim, like proud parents, that they had watched it grow up.
Yet Outside Closer is hardly a but-why? moment for the loyalists. The midtempo arpeggios that have formed the backbone of much of Hood’s work return, only without as much meandering. And the guitars sound warmer than before, as if they might have been passed through an amplifier before being plugged into the board. There’s a change for the better evident in Chris’ vocals, too, which even on Cold House were usually bleated out with little concern for pitch. Now they’re hushed and careful, leaving plenty of space for the songs to come together around them: “Still Rain Fell” puts his newly controlled ache at the center of some beautifully intertwined strings and acoustic guitar. And the vocals on “Winter 72,” sometimes so processed they sound more like a keyboard part, expertly guide the tune to a climactic guitar clang that will be familiar to anyone who knows Hood’s back catalog.
Such close attention to the way words drive a song isn’t unprecedented. On Cold House, the group began to embrace its love of hiphop—specifically the kind made by the glitchy, whiny weirdos who put out records on Bay Area indie Anticon. With cleaning things up apparently the MO for Outside Closer, you might think that this sort of influence would be the first to go. Instead, Hood expands on the idea in a Timbaland sort of way, making a high-gloss virtue of rhythmic unpredictability. “Any Hopeful Thoughts Arrive,” for example, finds a laptop-style loop flickering back and forth across a more traditional rock beat played on a more traditional drum kit. And on “The Lost You,” Chris manages to twist lines such as “You know that I don’t ever have the time/To witness the passing/Of these years” around the song’s restless syncopation.
The Adamses probably won’t be getting that call from Puffy any time soon. But everyone else can hear how well Hood meets hiphop on the band’s Web site, which currently features a rapped-over version of “The Negatives…” that works so well it might as well have been what the band had in mind for the tune in the first place. On the album itself, Outside Closer’s production consistently proves that the group has finally earned the right to spend more than the cost of four-track tape on its recordings. Everywhere guitars glimmer; violins scratch, stutter, and swell; bass drums well up from the depths. Even the 7-and-a-half-minute “This Is It Forever” is full of small sonic dramas, which make it nowhere near as aimless as the meditative late-’90s efforts on Rustic Houses, Forlorn Valleys and The Cycle of Days and Seasons.
However much this may seem like an inevitable evolution for the band, it’s not. For nearly 15 years, Hood has wandered its way through its own existence, seeming to let its innovations happen. This time, it made them happen. And what makes Outside Closer such a success isn’t just that it will make sense to those who have always loved Hood—it’s that it will also make sense to those who haven’t.
Low has also tried to make things happen on its latest. According to the veteran act’s Web site, “if [guitarist and singer Alan] Sparhawk…were the type to get terse with invisible critics or people who dismiss Low as some kind of one-note slowcore band, he might say of his band’s seventh album… ‘You want a rock record? Here’s your stinkin’ rock record.’”
Well, great: Low has made a rock record.
Year in, year out, album after album, ever so slowly, the Duluth, Minn., trio has managed to evolve from a stripped-down folk-rock outfit to a full-on creepiness factory, producing some of its finest work on 2001’s Things We Lost in the Fire and 2002’s Trust. Those who imagined the band was about only depression were surprised by several deviations from the slower-than-thou formula, most notably the latter disc’s “Canada,” a superficially upbeat track laden with hooks and propelled by a four-on-the-snare beat and a fuzzy bass line. If the song was nothing more than a wonderfully simple pop confection, it was also as evocative as anything that Sparhawk & Co. had ever produced: “I’m not scared of waking up/I’m not afraid of getting cut,” he sang as if he were unfolding a map of his psyche. “’Cause you can’t take that stuff to Canada/You can’t take it anywhere.”
Enter the new The Great Destroyer, which couldn’t be more well-named. Sparhawk; his wife, drummer and fellow vocalist Mimi Parker; and bassist Zak Sally spend much of the album nullifying any and all momentum built by their previous two long-players. Though the most obvious scapegoat for this shortcoming is Low’s self-conscious attempt to try new things, that isn’t the problem. On the contrary, “On the Edge Of,” a crossing-the-desert track if there ever was one, is strengthened by some out-of-character blues riffing, and “California,” the obvious successor to “Canada,” flirts successfully with grinning radio-ready cheesiness.
The real reason The Great Destroyer fails is because, unlike Hood, its makers didn’t go far enough in their new direction. On the fence and unsure of itself, Low has issued some of its poorest work. The cringes start right at the top, when Sparhawk wants to talk about a mad dash toward suicide but instead tells us all about how “Tonight the monkey dies.” It’s a far cry from the days when Sparhawk and Parker brought chills when they sang about death and sunflowers and figurative whores with the same sort of reverence on the same album.
If the music accompanying such cringe-worthy lines as “Steal the show with your rock ’n’ roll” and “Pissing on my toes” were anything close to passable, none of them would be an issue. But that’s not the case. All of Sparhawk’s projections aside, there are only two songs that might convince anyone that Low had turned toward propulsive music: “California,” of course, and the aforementioned “Monkey,” which includes just enough oomph from Sally to induce some toe-tapping. Elsewhere, The Great Destroyer just rambles on, offering the slightest of variations on Low’s trademark style. Things get chunky and midtempo for “Just Stand Back,” electro-fied and loopy on “Cue the Strings,” and soft then loud on “When I Go Deaf,” sure. But amid all the tentative, unconvincing eclecticism, this slocore band sounds more one-note than ever.CP