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Any drug person will be more than happy to inform you that humanity can be divided into those people who like ups and those who prefer downs. And the beat-per-minute underachievers in Low are definitely downers people. The Duluth, Minn., trio’s music comes at you in such an inching, reluctant, ketchup-from-the-bottle kinda way that you’ll have to fight the urge to turn the CD player over and spank it with the heel of your hand.
But just as you have your speed freaks who prefer downcast music, you also have downers people, like me, who prefer speedy music—which is why I’ve always avoided Low. Not for me its draggy shuffle down the muffled corridors of sound. I want something that’ll seize me by the ears and plunge me face-first into the Trough of Joy, not something that’ll send me nodding off into the Slough of Despond.
Or so I figured, having never actually condescended to give an honest listen to the minimalists in Low—whose standing in my eyes wasn’t exactly increased when the Gap featured their version of “Little Drummer Boy” in a holiday TV spot. Boy, do I feel foolish. Because Low’s seventh and latest studio album, Trust, is good. I mean really good. Go-out-and-buy-the-complete-back-catalog good. With the exception of a handful of pretentious tunes that stand out here like Ruth amid the alien corn, Trust is a nearly flawless demonstration of how, in the right hands, less can be so much more.
Alan Sparhawk (guitar, vocals), Mimi Parker (drums, vocals), and Zak Sally (bass) keep things as simple as simple can be, but they play with a tightly controlled intensity that belies any suspicions they’re four-track dilettantes. Hewn from the hardwoods of American folk and British postpunk and shaped by a basic set of tools—Sparhawk and Parker’s bewitching vocal harmonies, some spare but lovely melodies, and Parker’s Spartan drum work—Low’s songs are like Shaker chairs: unadorned, timelessly beautiful, and obviously made by human hands. You can practically smell the sawdust on ’em.
A more-than-worthy follow-up to the band’s last long-player, the excellent Things We Lost in the Fire, Trust opens with “(That’s How You Sing) Amazing Grace,” fitting some heavenly vocal harmonies by Parker and Sparhawk to a hypnotic, Joy Division-esque drum beat. This marvelous conjunction of the sacred and the sinister does more than just hint at the dualities of Low’s musical wellsprings; for the almost 10 seconds that Sparhawk and Parker manage to draw out the word “grace,” it resolves them.
The same goes for “Canada,” which opens with a big, impossibly fuzzed bass riff, then piles on some heavy-duty guitars before turning into—you guessed it—an America song. If this is Low’s idea of a joke, it works, thanks to some truly soulful vocal harmonizing by Parker and (no, he’s not dead) Gerry “Horse With No Name” Beckley. “You can’t take that stuff to Canada,” they sing, but whether it’s dope or something else they’re talking about, I’ll never know. I don’t really care, either—not with that pile-driver of a beat pounding in my ears like all the mining machinery in the Iron Range operating at once.
In showbiz, of course, momentum is everything, so why Low decided to put the mannered and underwhelming “Candy Girl” in the all-important No. 3 slot is beyond me. From its title on down—and I hereby propose a moratorium on songs about girls named Candy, songs that compare girls to candy, and all variations thereof—it’s like late Morphine without the kick, which I suppose makes it like methadone. And everybody knows methadone is no fun.
Neither, come to think of it, is the foot-dragging “I Am the Lamb” or the funereal “John Prine.” When I’m in a good mood, I’d describe the former as what the Alan Parsons Project might have sounded like had it gotten its hands on Freddie Prinze’s private stash of ‘Ludes. When I’m in a bad mood, I’d say it sounds more like a sumo wrestler plodding toward the shitter. As for the latter—well, I’ll just say that the man who penned “Illegal Smile” deserves better than this eight-minute re-imagining of the Stooges’ “We Will Fall.”
But hey, three bad songs out of 13 ain’t bad, especially when the others are as good as “In the Drugs,” a quiet, banjofied number that features Sparhawk singing, “I was a child/I was on fire/But I stayed alive/While all else died/I held my breath/What could I say?/And I closed my eyes like Marvin Gaye/But now I’ve had enough” before being joined on the chorus by Parker. “It’s in the drugs,” they sing over and over again, Parker’s high-lonesome soprano rising to some sad and beautiful plane that mere drugs could never hope to reach.
It’s the sublime “Snowstorm,” however, that really puts Trust over the top. Without a doubt the most beautiful song I’ve heard this millennium, it weds chiming guitars and gloriously pounding drums to Sparhawk and Parker’s unison vocalizing. “When we were young/We wanted to die,” they sing, only to be saved by “The sound of the drum/And the words of a child.” It’s a song of pure joy made by people who have managed not only to adapt to Minnesota’s miserable climes but to draw on them for their very lifeblood: “No, I would not face the last snowstorm of the year.”
If “Snowstorm” is the most blissful song of refusal you’re ever likely to hear, then “Little Argument With Myself” is the saddest ode to stargazing to come along in light years. “I wanna believe,” sings Sparhawk, to the accompaniment of a barely strummed guitar. A minute later, Parker comes in, along with some tinkly bells and blustery horns, and she and Sparhawk deliver the track’s big-and-bigger climax together: “Just keep counting the stars,” they sing, “Like someday you’ll find out/Just how many there are/Then we all can go home/’Cause there’s nothing as sad as/A man on his back counting stars.”
Look, I don’t know how I came to believe that Low is the kind of band that sits around all day gobbling Placidyl and perusing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest issue of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, but nothing could be further from the truth. Just check out “La La La Song” if you don’t believe me. It features backwoodsy guitars, big echoing drums, and some cool syncopated hand claps—just like Simon and Garfunkel, fer crissakes!—not to mention Sparhawk and Beckley singing the “la la la”s promised in the title. Sure, the lyrics are all about deception, dysfunction, and death, but those three little syllables sound as if they were recorded in some mythical happier place—where a green light shines at the end of every pier and Sister Golden Hair awaits each and every frickin’ lonely one of us with open arms.
Why, it’s almost enough to make you go out and hug somebody. So if you see me coming down the street with my Discman on, you’d best run. CP