Low, a little and once-quiet band from Duluth, Minnesota, turns 25 this year. Since the group's formation in 1993, Low has taken numerous detours – all involving experimenting with music on, well, the lower end of the spectrum. Such an approach doesn't always mean unobtrusive. Akin to the Tindersticks and Radiohead, Low shows that quiet can often make quite a roar. Having recorded since 2005 for Sub Pop, the trio – centered since Day One around the husband-and-wife team of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker – continues to create a niche for itself by taking songs rooted in folk and finding ways to obliterate or distinguish them. This week, the band releases its most striking record yet in Double Negative. It's all the more reason to celebrate the great indie ensemble by showcasing five of its must-hear albums.
The Invisible Way
In 2013, Low opted to collaborate with Wilco's Jeff Tweedy on a record that finds the group bringing Americana-inspired instrumentation to the fore. Still, The Invisible Way is far from a traditional folk effort. Taking an intimate approach to recording, Tweedy and the band focus on each plucked guitar string and every strike of the piano. If Low tends to obscure its natural beauty with noise, The Invisible Way heads in the opposite direction. Here, extreme closeness becomes disquieting – a tact that not only puts Low in the room but virtually on top of the listener. Collectively, the songs on The Invisible Way deal with aging. The abruptly exploding and disappearing electric guitars of "On My Own" reflect the loneliness of being near the end while the heart-pumping rhythm and roughly strummed guitar of "Plastic Cup" frame a song that references the hospital rooms that bookend one's life. Comforting? It depends on the darkness level of your sense of humor.
Ones and Sixes
Every Low album trades in quiet. Yet 2015's Ones and Sixes comes on as one of the loudest, most jarring and heavy – emotionally and sonically – quiet records you'll ever hear. It favors burrowing digital effects and deep, earthy bass sounds. When traditional moments appear, they glimmer in and out like sonic ghosts. An exception, "Spanish Translation," flirts with folk-inspired tones. But it also opens with Sparhawk singing "everything always confusion," which seems to function as the mission statement on Ones and Sixes, a work that zeroes in on life's anxieties. There are pretty moments – the fuzzy Brit-pop of "What Part of Me," for instance – yet even here, as Sparhawk and Parker lovingly harmonize, the underlying message points toward romantic confusion.
Low's latest arrives as one of the band's boldest albums. Songs often emerge through glaciers of static dissonance. And yet Double Negative doesn't feel standoff-ish. Rather than alienate, the music operates as a puzzle – think of the abstract albeit popular game Myst, in which the appeal largely owes to one trying to figure the whole thing out. Here, unexpected sounds abound. "Dancing and Blood" appears fashioned out of an electronic and futuristic military march, while "Always Trying to Work It Out" takes familiar guitar sounds and bends them. The latter song's lyrics – about a chance encounter with an old flame in a grocery store – are grounded in uncomfortable real-life moments. By extension, Double Negative sees Low doing what it's always done: Trying to find new ways to speak about an often-confusing world.
Eight songs, 30 minutes, and quite possibly the modern era's most exquisite holiday album. But don't write off the work as only for the month of December. A number of the tunes can be played year-round. While "The Little Drummer Boy" and "Blue Christmas" remain tied to the season, the shuffling melancholy of "Just Like Christmas" and spare "Taking Down the Tree" address big-picture concepts that transcend any holiday. "We set the star so high," Sparhawk sings on the latter track, his words and delivery devastatingly heartbreaking. Low isn't simply out to contrast the good cheer of Christmas. Instead, the ambitious record prizes nuance and reflection as it seeks a moment of joy that can feel, as Parker sings, just like Christmas.
The Great Destroyer
Low's Sub Pop debut represented not only a left turn, but helped cement who the band is today. Until this point in 2005, Low's records could sometimes be so quiet that the band seemed at risk of disappearing. Here, Low enlists Dave Fridmann (Mercury Rev, Flaming Lips) and recommits to serving as sonic explorers. "Monkey" mixes images of death with harsh, stuttering rhythms while "California" reveals glistening pop-single traits up its sleeve. As a whole, The Great Destroyer is about life's biggest moments and navigating change. "Death of a Salesman," for instance, sees the group grappling with the role music should – or can – play among adult concerns. It's Low looking ahead and not always liking what it sees, but remaining dedicated to surviving anything that comes its way.
Photo credit: Paul Husband