Low, "C'mon"

Saturday, 09 April 2011 21:00 Stephen Bush Reviews - Albums and Singles
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cover imageSince parting from Kranky after 2002's Trust, Low have been at a crossroads. Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, the band's guiding lights, have experimented with Low's blueprint, slipping into costume as a proper rock band on The Great Destroyer, then deconstructing that sound on Drums and Guns. Both are littered with great songs, but sound restless and unfocused in contrast with Low's previous work—the distinctive, low-key beauty that had drawn me into their world was often missing, at odds with their forays into dissonance and distortion. For their third Sub Pop album, Low have discovered a wonderful middle ground, merging the simplicity of their early recordings with the scaled-up production of their last two albums.

Sub Pop

Low

C'mon leaves behind the tense political overtones of Drums and Guns and the overblown, fuzzy distortion of The Great Destroyer, taking lessons learned from those production techniques and applying them to ten cohesive, elegiac songs that, at many points, recall Low's earliest work. C'mon was recorded at Sacred Heart Studio, a converted Catholic church where the band recorded 2002's Trust, but the production is warmer, more inviting, and the songs have less empty space. The songs are supplemented with pipe organ, bells, slide guitar and ornate embellishments, coupled with lyrics about love, family, security and spirituality. Truly, this is Low's most mature and introspective work to date. Its closest antecedent might be "In Metal," the phenomenal ode that Parker sung to her first child a decade ago: "Wish I could keep your little body / in metal."

The fingerprints of Sparhawk and Parker's two children are all over C'mon, and its themes frequently center on family and parenthood—but Low aren't about to pen lullabies without any tension. Opener "Try to Sleep" sounds like a sweetly sung prayer for a newborn with its gentle, music-box melody, but holds an ominous twist: "You try to sleep / but then you never wake up." Recent live staple "$20," which the band has played on tour recently, sounds like a laundry list of a caretaker's protective wishes for a child: "A heart that won't burst / and lips that don't thirst / I thought of you first / my love is for free, my love / my love is for free." The lovely "Nightingale" is more conventional, finding Sparhawk and Parker soothing a young child ("Oh nightingale, don't you cry") to a gorgeous, impeccably restrained arrangement. Their kids even appear on the final song, "Something's Turning Over," echoing Alan's "La la la la la" refrain that closes the acoustic guitar-based song after he warns them both: "Get out while you're young / just because you never hear their voices / don't mean they won't kill you in your sleep."

Like Low's prior Sub Pop albums, C'mon houses several of the best songs the band has recorded in recent memory. One is "Witches," which embellishes evocative guitar chords with a banjo that appears mid-song before Sparhawk begins quoting Kool Keith in the song's coda: "All you guys out there trying to act like Al Green / you're all weak." Alongside Alan's father teaching him to fight off witches with a baseball bat—again, a reference to parental protectiveness—it is a brazen and bizarre combination that works beautifully. "Especially Me" is a Parker-sung stunner that pairs a seemingly backwards-looped guitar line with one of her greatest chorus melodies. Several songs recall the minimalistic arrangements of the band's Vernon Yard and Kranky years: the stark vocal melody of "Done," for example, is a dead-ringer for "Will the Night," from 1999's Secret Name. The difference between the two is guitar virtuoso Nels Cline, who guests on slide guitar. (An avowed fan, he invited Low to open for Wilco a few years back, sitting in on lap steel occasionally.) Here, Cline's appearance sells the song: his contribution is restrained and mixed subtly, but effective in imbuing "Done" with its own lifeblood.

Later, Cline also guests on the album's penultimate track, "Nothing but Heart"—one of Low's best songs to date. Sparhawk sets the stage with a few seconds of fiery guitar playing, which cuts out to reveal a single verse: "I would be your king / but you wanna be free / confusion and art / I'm nothing but heart." He then repeats the final words ad infinitum while the song builds for eight minutes: Parker joins Sparhawk on vocals; Cline adds an evocative slide guitar line at first, then starts to let loose, reminiscent of Neil Young's more unhinged moments; volume and tension increase all around, Cline and Sparhawk feeding off each other's energy. As the singing becomes increasingly urgent, Parker steps back from the repeated mantra ("I'm nothing but heart") for her own verse that's hard to make out—it's buried deep in the mix—except for a few words: "Remember that all we are is what we love." Then, slowly, it all fades to black. "Nothing but Heart" is Low at the height of their powers, transcendence via epic build and repetition—a song so finely composed and executed that I haven't listened without slightly welling up with tears each time I hear it.

Admittedly, Low are my favorite band going—have been for a decade. I cited Drums and Guns as my favorite album of 2007 when it was released, but C'mon couldn't be more different in its approach. That said, I have played this new album into the ground and cannot find fault with it. Nearly two decades into their career, Sparhawk and Parker have come far from the soft-spoken newcomers who released I Could Live in Hope back in 1994. Much as I love their early recordings—and truly, each of their albums—C'mon is a step forward, exactly what I would ask from Low in 2011: magnificent arrangements, carefully embellished production, inviting warmth infusing each song. Like a fine Bordeaux, Low continue to improve with age. Moreover, C'mon is genuinely moving, accomplished, and brimming over with love and feeling—nothing but heart, indeed.

(Note: Those who purchase the C'mon CD/LP at independent record stores this week may receive the bonus C'mon Acoustic EP. Its five songs are bare-bones recordings, just guitar and vocals, and structurally identical to the album versions. Those faring best are the songs that remain stripped down on C'mon, such as "Nightingale." Inessential, yes—but a testament to the gorgeous, layered production that Low and Matt Beckley got right on the album proper.)

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Last Updated on Tuesday, 12 April 2011 22:21