Duluth, Minnesota's legendary "slowcore" (as opposed to hardcore) trio LOW certainly fits the bill. Virtual inventors of the genre (perhaps shared with Codeine, but that's for the nitpickers to argue), Low doesn't write songs as much as songscapes. Low is all about atmosphere, all about the space between the notes being just as important - if not more so - than the notes themselves.
Early in their career (1994-1995) they worked with legendary New York noisenik Kramer (he of Bongwater fame), who produced the band's first two heavily reverb-laden LPs I COULD LIVE IN HOPE and LONG DIVISION - two records which introduced the world to the idea that hey, glacially-paced punk can be just as mind- (and head-) blowing as hardcore. After a third LP, 1997's THE CURTAIN HITS THE CAST, somebody had the genius idea - and I mean that with all due respect - to hook the band up with the original analog purist Steve Albini.
Low and Albini was truly a marriage made in heaven. For a band that trades on the idea of the spaces being as key as the musics, Albini's recording style is absolutely perfect for this band. You can hear the room as much as the music - it feels as if you are RIGHT THERE as much as any recording I've ever heard. You get a real feel of texture, of space, of atmosphere - and it's all without any gimmickry, just a GREAT live room sound at Chicago's Electrical Audio (Albini's own studio) and very strategic microphone placement.
So I present two of the finest sounding records in my collection, 1999's SECRET NAME and 2001's THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE. Recorded in Chicago at Albini's Electrical Audio studios, by Steve Albini, these two records sound just frankly incredible. From a sonics perspective, there's headroom (dynamics! No loudness wars here!), clarity, depth. And just as important (it's a music blog after all, not an engineering blog) - from a music perspective, the songs are just wonderful.
Guitarist and co-vocalist Alan Sparhawk, "drummer" and co-vocalist Mimi Parker, and bassist Zak Sally have created here some of the most beautiful songs I have in my collection. You'll just have to hear for yourself - and I can't imagine hearing these recorded any other way, the recording fits the songwriting fits the recording....
As a bonus, I've included some extra tracks from the 3xCD rarities box set A LIFETIME OF TEMPORARY RELIEF that I'm fairly certain were also recorded by Albini (I had the box stolen so don't have the credits, just the actual CDs). Well, all but the final two songs I present here are Albini sessions, that is - the Smiths and Pink Floyd covers aren't Albini recordings, as far as I know. But whatever, they're just utterly spectacular regardless.
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the ELECTRICAL AUDIO recordings
THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE
(selections from) A LIFETIME OF TEMPORARY RELIEF
edit: Removed link.
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(1999 Kranky KRANK035)
01 I Remember
04 Weight of Water
06 Don't Understand
10 Days Of...
11 Will the Night
THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE
(2001 Kranky KRANK046)
03 Dinosaur Act
04 Medicine Magazine
05 Laser Beam
09 Kind Of Girl
10 Like A Forest
12 (untitled instrumental)
13 In Metal
Some random internet critic:
While Low was playing live on John Peel's BBC radio show in England last year, an emergency back-up system kicked in without warning, momentarily replacing the group with a blast of pre-recorded, insipid pop (possibly All Saints). As Peel later explained, the system goes into operation automatically if there's an extended period of silence resulting, for instance, from the death of the DJ on the air. Those who designed such technology obviously hadn't considered how it might respond to Low, whose pared-down, slowcore aesthetic centers on an artful use of quiet spaces, pauses and decidedly un-rock levels of amplification.
With the assistance of producer Steve Albini, on Things We Lost in the Fire Low crafts another collection of downbeat, achingly stark songs. Threaded with slight, hymnal vocals and striking a delicate balance between dark intensity and ethereal fragility, this new material bears many of the hallmarks of Low's sound as it has defined itself on previous releases. The coordinates here are familiar: The Velvet Underground, Simon and Garfunkel, Galaxie 500, Joy Division, The Cowboy Junkies and Mazzy Star.
But although Low's music remains minimal in its design and beautifully snail-paced, this new release also attests to the continuing evolution of the band's sound. Things We Lost in the Fire picks up where Low's last recording with Albini (1999's Secret Name) left off, progressively expanding on the band's sparse common denominator of bass, drums and guitar. Things finds Low's measured atmospherics and gentle melodies further enhanced by layers of instrumentation — for instance, cello, violin, piano, mellotron and trumpet. Moreover, it finds the band's melancholy and affecting textures coalescing even more into traditional song structures.
The focal point of Low's sound has consistently been the human voice and, on Things We Lost in the Fire, the lulling vocals of spouses Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker again take pride of place, serving as the most engaging instruments in the mix. Throughout this album — most notably on "Sunflower", "Medicine Magazines" and "Kind of Girl" — the couple execute stunning harmonies with an emotive range that belies their quiet simplicity.
"Laser Beam", sung by Parker, is a brief yet superbly haunting lullaby, so down-tempo that it seems just to hang in the air. On the spare "Embrace", her voice captures and translates the melancholy swell of the string arrangement and the building tension of the unrelenting, funereal beat. Similarly compelling is Sparhawk's delicate, almost murmured, singing on the vaguely unsettling "Whitetail", probably the most stripped-down song on the album. With its repetitive arrangement of brushed cymbals, a suggestion of cello and a modicum of guitar and bass, this track displays little linear progression, moving not so much forward as downward to plumb the depths of some intangible menace.
While it's impossible to locate weak points on Things We Lost in the Fire, it's relatively easy to pick the two strongest tracks. "Closer" showcases Low at its lilting, unhurried best, the couple's voices breathtakingly intertwined and subtly cocooned by doleful strings. "Dinosaur Act", on the other hand, evokes a succession of controlled explosions in slow-motion, revealing a harder, distortion-scuffed edge of Low's sound. Here, Sparhawk's disembodied, Neil Young-esque vocals hover over the track's ponderous bass-heavy reaches, to be joined in the pounding crescendos by Bob Weston's trumpet as well as Parker's dulcet harmonies.
On Things We Lost in the Fire, Low proves once again that less is indeed more. Voices are barely raised and the sound is only rarely turned up, yet the band's understated, lingering vocal and instrumental arrangements conjure up textured, dynamic spaces whose emotive resonance speaks volumes.
A LIFETIME OF TEMPORARY RELIEF
(2004 Chairkickers CKM012)
01 Last Breath
02 Old Man Song
03 Try Try Try
04 When You Walked
05 Back Home Again
06 Blowin' In The Wind
07 Open Arms
08 ...I Love
10 Don't Carry It All
11 Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me
1-2 extra tracks on the 2xLP vinyl SECRET NAME
9-10 extra tracks on the 2xLP vinyl THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE
and yes, track 7 is a Journey cover