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Album review: Low – “I Could Live in Hope”

21/01/2011

Low are basically the husband-and-wife team of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker. The bassists came and went, except Zak Sally, who stayed in the band since “Long Division” till “The Great Destroyer” – now that they’ve recorded their ninth album with a new bass guitarist Steve Garrington and are about to release it this April, I thought I’d revisit my favorite album by them, and one of my personal all-time best.

This is their first full-length, recorded with John Nichols on bass guitar and produced by Mark Kramer, the producer for all the Galaxie 500 output. Unlike their contemporaries who also played slowcore, Low were more minimalist – Parker’s drumset was even reduced to just a ride cymbal and snare, that she hit with brushes. The bass guitar work is just as minimal, often reminding of Joy Division’s Peter Hook, so that left only Sparhawk’s guitar and close harmonies with his wife in the forefront. Both are magnificent.

And that’s the point, because “I Could Live in Hope” does something that bands with ornate arrangements could never reach with purposefully limited means. At times, even the guitar and vocals take backseat in significance towards all the reverberation and delay. That is to say, Low make good use of both “positive” and “negative space”, or whatever they call it. Of course, I can’t say that they made the musical equivalent of a Tibetan mantra or Japanese haiku – that’s Piero Scaruffi’s domain. But still…

I’m pretty much at a loss for words right now because as of this very moment I’m in a knee deep depression. Naturally, slowcore and even more importantly sadcore would be the last music you’d turn to when you feel like that, but the thing about Low is that they may be slowcore, but they’re not sad. The only moment that may be brushing “sadness” is the centerpiece of the album, “Lullaby”. A 10-minute gutwrenching epic that it is, it is immediately followed by the simple, yet hopeful “Sea”. “I could live in hope” indeed. And that this album is closed off by the cover of an American standard “(You Are My) Sunshine”, only adds to the “hope” element.

Also notable is that despite Sparhawk and Parker being Mormons, they never bring their religious views to the forefront. In fact, lyrics here are as minimal as anything on the record, and as such play the role of just another instrument, but they also convey some subliminal meaning only a listener can decide. Admirable because I’m not too keen on following any religion whatsoever, though there might be oblique references. Whatever it could be, it only increases the magic of the album.

I haven’t said much about the other songs on the album, but as such it doesn’t matter. “I Could Live in Hope” is greater than just the sum of its songs – one of the more atmospheric offerings around, it’s the best possible response to the prevalence of heavy music today. Well, that was the whole intent of forming Low, actually.

Highlights: “Cut”, “Lazy”, “Lullaby”, “Sea”, “Sunshine”

Lowlights: none

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