Low: Things We Lost in the Fire (Kranky Records, 2001)
Low is a band that certainly needs no introduction to fans of slow, quiet music. The Duluth, Minnesota trio creates somber, delicate recordings featuring the intertwining vocals of Alan and Mimi Parker. Low‘s music seems to embody their locale: cold, pastoral, wintry, and sad. Playing and recording together since 1994, Low practically invented the sub-genre of slowcore, inspiring countless songwriters and groups with their minimalist approach to music.
Despite their longevity, influence and relative fame (one of their songs even appeared on a Gap commercial a few years back), I’m relatively behind the times in my Low collection. In fact, 2001’s Things We Lost in the Fire is my one and only Low release, which is absurd, given how much I love their music and how suited it is to the long winter months here in Ontario, Canada. As well, Low is the starting point and influence for so many of the bands I love (Coastal, Sappington, Ln, etc.). So, read this review with this in mind, I really know very little about this band. What I DO know is, Things We Lost in the Fire is a beautiful CD, with great, emotional songs that move the listener without overwhelming layers of instruments.
One of the first things I noticed about Things We Lost in the Fire is the relative accessibility of the CD. I had always heard about how dark and brooding Low is, so when I popped in Things We Lost in the Fire, I was expecting a collection of terrifying songs. Instead, “Sunflower” opens the CD with a light guitar, and a hummable melody. The song almost sounds like a pop song, with just a slight hint of melancholy. The dark reputation of Low, though, rears its head in the song’s opening lyrics “When they found your body, giant X’s on your eyes”. Yet, delivered by the beautiful harmonies of the Parker‘s, such menacing lyrics are almost untroubling. The song features lovely violins that, along with the vocal harmonies, gives the song an almost classical and cultured feel, without losing it’s folk tendencies. What an unexpected and stunning introduction to the band!
In fact, other songs on Things We Lost in the Fire are equally surprising in their accessibility. “Dinosaur Act” equally as bright as “Sunflower”, is an almost romping song, with an emphasis on thunderous timpani percussion. In the verses, Alan takes the lead, singing over a delicate bed of organ, bass, and brush percussion. The melody is even more shiny than “Sunflower”, and it’s not too much of a stretch to say that “Dinosaur Act” may have even been a radio hit, if DJ’s were more open to independent music.
However, with all this talk of pop and accessibility, the fact remains that Low is master of the slow, quiet jam, and several songs on Things We Lost in the Fire prove this point. “Laser Beam” is a simply, gorgeous song, consisting only of a solitary warbled guitar line and Mimi‘s tender vocals. With a theme of grace (members of Low are practicing Mormons, and frequently religious themes permeate the lyrics, in a respectful way, though) and a lovelorn melody, “Laser Beam” tugs at the heart while lulling the listener.
For me, though, the most effective songs, and the songs that elevate Things We Lost in the Fire from being an excellent CD to a special CD, are the songs that combine slowcore tendencies with a building intensity. “Embrace” begins with an almost droning timpani beat, and eventually is accompanied by near-random guitar lines. Mimi sings quietly and hypnotically. The song builds in tension, as gloomy violins make their appearance, to a glorious crescendo of passionate singing by Mimi, full instrumentation, and a double-time beat of that ominous timpani:
“I fell down the stairs, I wished I were dead”.
Another great example of the type of dynamics that Low is capable of us the closing song, “In Metal”, which features a slightly more accessible verse compared to “Embrace”. The timpani appears again, along with guitars and Mimi‘s surprisingly variable voice singing sweetly. This time, the climax of the song is less emotional, but certainly not less effective, as percussion, more guitars, and other instruments quicken the song’s tempo and support Mimi‘s harmonies to end the CD.
Overall, I’m a bit surprised at Low. I’m surprised at how catchy their music is, though it never strays from being slow. I’m surprised at how their lyrics combine ominous themes with redemptive ones. I’m surprised at wide range of instruments that are masterfully played on Things We Lost in the Fire. I’m a bit surprised at how “unalternative” Low sounds, while sounding totally unique and authentic. But, in the end, Low lives up to its reputation as a fantastically talented group of songwriters and performers, and this CD definitely is a kick in the butt for me to buy more Low.
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