Category: Low

Recap: The Hold Steady, Meat Puppets, and Retribution Gospel Choir at First Avenue

“We are The Hold Steady, and we’re gonna have a good time tonight!”

Usually when a singer introduces his band like that on stage, it’s just a platitude, an easy way to warm up the crowd. But when Craig Finn says it in Minneapolis, and particularly at First Avenue, you can be damn sure he means it. In strict terms of residency, The Hold Steady might be a New York band, but its heart has always been here in Minnesota. That’s hardly a secret, of course—Finn has been mining his Minneapolis past for lyrical material ever since he and fellow expat Tad Kubler formed THS out of the ashes of Lifter Puller, using it as an essential backdrop for his long-running, loosely connected song cycle about being young and down-and-out. The passing of years makes the theme increasingly nostalgic and hazy with each successive album, but it doesn’t seem like Finn will drop it anytime soon—not when Heaven Is Whenever kicks off with a line about living on Hennepin Avenue.

So when The Hold Steady comes home to the bar one block away, they own that stage. And that’s because we Twin Citians own The Hold Steady. Never mind New York; these guys are ours. “I don’t think anyone understands what we’re talking about half as well as you guys do,” Finn acknowledged during “Little Hoodrat Friend.” Finn makes an unlikely rock star, dressed in a black button-down short-sleeve shirt like a guy from the IT department who’s busting out a few of Mick Jagger’s moves. He had a look of pure joy on his face the whole night, and it was mirrored in the ecstatic mood of the audience, which burst into explosive life for the headliners after an appreciative but more subdued response to openers The Meat Puppets. The crowd clearly knew all the songs by heart and sang along to every syllable.

Originally published Dec. 30, 2010 on Read the complete article.

Interview: Retribution Gospel Choir’s Alan Sparhawk unleashes his inner classic-rock beast

Retribution Gospel ChoirPlenty of musicians get mellower with age, but Alan Sparhawk’s been doing the exact opposite. For the past couple of albums, his main band, Low, has been progressively increasing the noise level on its minimalist (and originally very quiet) rock, and he pushes that envelope even further with side project Retribution Gospel Choir. Where Low is about doing more with less, RGC is a place where Sparhawk can cut loose. Rounded out by bassist (and Sparhawk’s Low bandmate) Steve Garrington and drummer Eric Pollard, the band has just released its sophomore disc, simply titled 2. Although it still shares a lot in common sonically with Low, the album gives free rein to a fuller, almost classic-rock sound, and it has a sense of freewheeling fun not usually associated with Sparhawk’s main band. Before playing at the Triple Rock Social Club Feb. 20, Sparhawk talked to The A.V. Club about Huey Lewis harmonies, Low’s dip into the dance world, and his toughest critic.

Originally published on Feb. 19, 2010. Read the complete article.

Review: Zak Sally, Zak Sally’s Fear Of Song

Zak Sally, Zak Sally’s Fear Of Song
(La Mano 21)

Zak Sally shifted his attention largely to graphic art after leaving Duluth slowcore trio Low in 2005, focusing on writing and drawing Recidivist, Sammy The Mouse, and the forthcoming Like A Dog, as well as running the small press La Mano 21, which releases books by artists like John Porcellino and William Schaff. While often dreamlike and full of wild invention, Sally’s comics also reveal his introspective and insecure side, and it wouldn’t be surprising to anyone familiar with them that he’s kept a full-fledged return to music at arm’s length, feeling hesitant despite his success with Low. Still, he’s kept a toe in that world via one-off gallery performances with bands like White Map, an unforgettably weird noise-rock duo in which he straps a gigantic loudspeaker to his head and emits electronic squawks; see below for a short video clip. But over time, he began working on music again in earnest, building up an album’s worth of material on his own, in his basement, performing all the instruments himself and producing with the help of Crazy Beast Studio’s Ben Durrant. Fear Of Song is clearly a very personal album, with the same raw, soul-baring openness he shows in Recidivist evident on the title song and in lines like, “If nobody hears us, then how do they know who to blame?” Sonically, it definitively shows that Alan Sparhawk wasn’t the only good songwriter in Low. Fear Of Song pushes the boundaries of the feedback-laced slowcore that Low was just beginning to explore on The Great Destroyer, Sally’s last album with that band, though not to the extent of the honking craziness of White Map. Sub Pop Records just released a 7-inch single of the song “Why We Hide,” but Sally is releasing the full album himself via La Mano in a handmade limited edition. (To raise the funds to do so, he recently sold the original painting he did for Great Destroyer on eBay.) He’ll perform at a combination La Mano benefit and CD-release show at Eclipse Records tonight with another of his bands, the formidably named TOGPTFFSOTWOTERATSYOA, a trio with Steel Pole Bathtub’s Dale Flattum and Cows/TVBC drummer Freddy Votel whose set list is hidden in its monstrous acronym: “Three Old Guys Play The First Five Songs Off The Wipers’ Over The Edge Record And The Song ‘Youth Of America.’”

Grade: B

White Map performs on a floating platform on the Mississippi River at the 2009 Art-A-Whirl Festival:

Originally published on A.V. Club Twin Cities.

Review: Retribution Gospel Choir: Retribution Gospel Choir

Alan Sparhawk’s main project, the Duluth slowcore trio Low, has cranked up the volume and feedback so much over its last couple of albums that Sparhawk’s raucous side projects Black Eyed Snakes and Retribution Gospel Choir aren’t as much of a surprise as they once were. Looking back, they now seem like ways for Sparhawk to experiment with new sounds before committing himself to adding them into the Low recipe. But there’s still lots of ground to explore with RGC—he’s able to go even further out into louder, harder-rocking territory, and he sounds as comfortable there as he ever did in Low’s quiet, still spaces.

Originally a duo project with Sun Kil Moon’s Mark Kozelek, RGC is now a Sparhawk-fronted trio also featuring Low bassist Matt Livingston, though Kozelek is still involved as producer. (It’s his record label, too.) Two songs here first appeared on Low’s Drums And Guns, and the changes are instructive: “Breaker” morphs from an organ-and-handclap-driven drone to one built around a thrashing guitar riff, with the urgency kicked up a notch. Better? Not exactly, but it’s like watching two great actors interpret the same role in different ways—they’re both right, and perfect for their context.

Originally published on March 17, 2008. Read the complete article.

Interview: Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker of Low

Duluth trio Low has been tagged as “that slow, quiet band” for most of its 14-year career, but that’s only part of the story. On recent albums like 2005′s The Great Destroyer and the new Drums And Guns, Low has found ways to capture a bigger, denser sound without sacrificing a minimalist ethic. The A.V. Club spoke with singer-guitarist Alan Sparhawk, drummer (and Sparhawk’s wife) Mimi Parker, and new bassist Matt Livingston about Drums‘ take on violence, the band’s 2006 hiatus, and the experience of eating an entire cake in three minutes.

Originally published April 12, 2007 on Read the complete article.

Review: Low, Drums And Guns

Even for a band that built its reputation on the quality of its brooding, Low seems particularly worried and preoccupied on Drums And Guns. As the title suggests, the Duluth trio’s eighth studio album explores the timely topic of war and violence, and they don’t seem to like what they find either looking outward or inward. Violence and its consequences lurk behind every lyric, starting from the first line: “All the soldiers are all gonna die, all the babies are all gonna die.” And while it’s obvious that the Iraq War is a primary inspiration for Drums And Guns, it’s far from an overtly political album. Instead, songwriter Alan Sparhawk seems most concerned with war’s ethical and metaphysical toll. Sparhawk’s penchant for introspection leads him to explore his own reaction to the caustic temptations of anger in unsettling lines like “my hand just kills and kills” and “all I can do is fight.” He offers his services to God as a contract killer in “Murderer,” simultaneously delivering a scathing attack on religion’s role in stirring up unrest and an empathic understanding of how even the most peacefully spiritual people can be lured down the wrong path.

Low’s quiet, still songcraft made it the standard-bearer of the slowcore movement in the 1990s, but the move to the indie label Sub Pop for 2005′s The Great Destroyer signaled a major shift to a bigger, louder sound. Teaming the band again with producer Dave Fridmann, Drums And Guns pushes that evolution even further, and what seemed like a radical departure two years ago now sounds like a waystation on the journey to this more disjointed, more fragmented, more demanding, and ultimately more rewarding work. The musical arrangements have an edge and roughness that matches Sparhawk’s words—the reversed guitar on “Breaker” is particularly effective. The darkly textured production sounds more like a typical Steve Albini-produced album than either of the two discs Low previously made with him. It’s slow and somber, but boiling underneath.

Originally published on March 20, 2007. Read the complete article.

2005: The Year In Music (Loon State Edition)

As someone who’s lived almost all of his life in the Twin Cities, I’ve always been a big fan of Minnesota’s music scene, and one of the pleasures of being The A.V. Club’s Twin Cities editor is that I get to hear so much local music. As a sidebar to our national 2005: The Year In Music list, here’s my take on the best discs made by or (in one case) about Minnesotans this year.

1) Low, The Great Destroyer: Low’s musical identity is so closely tied to melancholy, introspective stillness that turning up the volume would seem to wreck what’s appealing about the band in the first place, but on The Great Destroyer, Duluth’s finest export after taconite pellets cranked up the fuzzbox and the amps without sacrificing a thing. Instead, the increased intensity—ominously rumbling keyboards under “Monkey,” a loud, distorted riff powering “Everybody’s Song”—lends Destroyer an epic quality that works hand in hand with the intimacy at the heart of a Low song.

Originally published Dec. 16, 2005 on Read the complete article.

Interview: Alan Sparhawk of Low

It’s been a tumultuous year for Duluth band Low, which jumped to a new label (Sub Pop), released one of its strongest—and definitely its loudest—albums (The Great Destroyer), and then went on an abrupt hiatus in May due to mental-health issues of leader Alan Sparhawk. Then, in October, longtime bassist Zak Sally announced he was leaving the trio. Low will return to the stage Dec. 9 at First Avenue for a special holiday show, and in January returns seriously to touring with a series of shows that take the band all across the U.S. and Canada. The A.V. Club caught up recently with Sparhawk to talk about all the changes.

Originally published Dec. 7, 2005 on Read the complete article.

Straight Talk: Alan Sparhawk of Low

The saying goes that slow and steady wins the race. If so, give Low the gold. This Duluth indie-rock trio—guitarist Alan Sparhawk, his wife Mimi Parker on drums, and bassist Zak Sally—have become internationally renowned for a contemplative, ethereal sound reminiscent of Galaxie 500 and the early Cure. Their new retrospective box set, A Lifetime Of Temporary Relief, collects B-sides and rarities going back to Low’s earliest recorded work, in addition to eleven videos and three documentaries, including the illuminating “Closer Than That.” Essential for any fan, it would be a good place to start for the casual listener as well (say, those who might only have heard the version of “Little Drummer Boy” the Gap used in a Christmastime TV ad). They’re currently working with Flaming Lips producer Dave Fridman on a full-length record, their seventh, which Sparhawk jokes will “sound like Weezer.” Sparhawk will play a solo show at the 400 Bar July 31, and Low appears October 8-9 at Triple Rock Social Club.

THE RAKE: Does Duluth exert a geographic influence on your songs?
I think so. There’s a sort of Scandinavian reservedness about it. And the cold, the long winter, the mini-ocean. We have a definite Midwestern thing going on, a lack of irony. Although we did do a Journey cover.

The “Closer Than That” documentary includes footage from a concert in Amsterdam. How is Low received in Europe?
Pretty well, actually. I think we actually sell more records in Europe and England. I hope we don’t become one of those bands that nobody knows over here but we’re huge in Belgium. We have a great fan base in the U.S., and we’re certainly not slagged or ignored by the press, but it seems like in Europe we’re treated seriously, as a band that’s as valid as anybody else. Whereas in the U.S. we’re still kind of an anomaly: “Oh, yeah, that slow, quiet, indie rock band.” We could tour Europe twice as much as we do.

On the other hand, it’s more difficult to tour Europe because you’re also traveling with your children.
Yeah. In the U.S. you can just hop in the van and go.

What’s it like for Low to be simultaneously a band and a family?
It’s good. It can be difficult, but I’d rather do it this way. We’re lucky to be able to be around our kids all the time. Each side of my life is amplified by the other. The band pushes the possibilities for tension in the marriage, but also the rewards. They play off each other. The bad days are bad for the family, and vice versa. The biggest factor is having children.

You and Mimi just had your second, didn’t you?
Yes, he’s about a month old.

If you keep going, you could transform Low into the world’s slowest Von Trapp Family Singers cover band.
There you go! It could become a family variety show. A friend of mine says, almost seriously, that he wants to film a pilot of us going on the road, and call it Family Band. Sort of an alternative Osbournes—though it’d probably be more like The Office.

Your cover of “Surfer Girl” started as a lullaby to your daughter, right?
Yes. It’s funny, because there’s a moment on the documentary where Mimi and I are sitting on a couch backstage after a concert, and we play “Surfer Girl,” and she suddenly perks up and turns her head to look. I didn’t realize she did that until I’d seen the footage.

Despite your successes, Low’s unusual approach probably means you’ll always be a niche band. But your ten-year career suggests you’ve found the right niche.
It’s been appropriate for us. I’d love to make a record for $200,000 with Brian Eno, but you have to work with what resources are there. It’s not about staying “indie”—we don’t care about that. You have to adjust to the fact that if you have something going on and it connects with people, even on a small level, you can do it if you have the right attitude and the right perspective. You’ve got to work within the limits.

Originally published in the August 2004 issue of Rake Magazine.

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