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+ {Alan Sparhawk} + {Retribution Gospel Choir}

Termed “sad-core”, “slo-core” and indeed “Low-fi” (geddit!), the Mormon husband and wife team of Alan Sparhawk (vocals/guitar) and Mimi Parker (drums/vocals), have challenged the parochial “rawk” community surrounding them – and consequentially, after two decades in the biz, winning the wistful war. Quiet is the new loud.
Formed spring 1993 in Duluth, Minnesota, the austere and ethereal pair – plus initial bassist John Nichols – almost immediately found a proponent in former SHOCKABILLY geezer turned indie producer, (Mark) KRAMER, who got to work on a demo, which, in turn, led LOW to signing with the Virgin offshoot imprint, Vernon Yard. Produced by the aforementioned New Yorker, I COULD LIVE IN HOPE (1994) {*7} encompassed their haunting hypno-beats in all their gloomy glory; Mimi’s sparse percussion (and a handful of vox spots) gelled with her hubby’s atmospherics aesthetics. Even closing track, Jimmie Davis’ staple “You Are My Sunshine” (here as `Sunshine’), doesn’t spoil the squeaky ambience settings of `Words’, `Cut’, `Lazy’ and the lengthy `Lullaby’.
Superseding Nichols with Zak Sally, LONG DIVISION (1995) {*8} went more or less ignored, but whereas their previous debut plodded through its reactionary post-grunge atmos-angst, LOW stripped back the petals to reveal structure and climax. If one can imagine a zombie dance-floor, then songs such as `Violence’, `Shame’, `Stay’ and `Caroline’, had it in er… spades. Rising above their foreboding dream-pop, `Swingin’’, LOW lurched out of winter and into spring, albeit, still throwing proverbial snowballs at the moon.
Critics again pricked up their ears for the low-key, lo-fi/ambient classic, THE CURTAIN HITS THE CAST (1996) {*7}. An album to compare with other fellow sad-core miserabilists, CODEINE and RED HOUSE PAINTERS, there was beauty in the pastoral `The Plan’, `Over The Ocean’ and the epic `Laugh’, while `How Do You Know How To Waltz?’ clocked in at an exhaustive 14 minutes. LOW duly completed a few UK gigs to promote the set during that summer, and later cut a single for the legendary Sub Pop label: `Venus’. The trio delivered a further two sets, namely the mini SONGS FOR A DEAD PILOT (1997) {*6} – their first for Kranky Records – and the “live”-in-concert round-up, ONE MORE REASON TO FORGET (1998) {*6}. Depicting a barren, glacial landscape superimposed with the inner-branch workings of a head, the tracks, too, are restrained and subdued; the chilling guitar strums on the 13-minute `Born By The Wires’, almost POPOL VUH/“Nosferatu” at their cinematic prime.
1999 saw LOW release their best work to date, the bruised and ultra sensitive SECRET NAME {*8}; their first for Tugboat Records in Britain. Recorded over a 7-day period with West Coast rock throwback and ex-BIG BLACK frontman Steve Albini riding the faders, the band hit a new creative peak with this warm and whispering alternative classic. Tracks such as `Soon’ and the harmonic `Missouri’, evoked blissful sensation and echoed tingling country heir that recalled the late, great GRAM PARSONS. Others like `Two-Step’ and `I Remember’ could easily be compared to a CARPENTERS ballad or something reminiscent of GALAXIE 500.
Meanwhile, Zak moonlighted with another minimalist trio, Enemymine (along with Mike Kunka of GODHEADSILO, and Danny Sasaki), recording an eponymous mini-set for Calvin Johnson’s K imprint. SPARHAWK would test the water with a moonlighting solo 45, `Sleep Song’. Towards the end of the millennium, LOW came up with the `Christmas’ EP/mini-set, which featured four brand new tracks and a cover of four traditional hymns that would peacefully send the children off to sleep by the fire come the festive season.
Prolific as always, LOW returned in 2001 with their most accessible album to date, the haunting THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE {*8}. The Steve Albini-tinkered set saw the group head towards a more uptempo, song-based direction, although tracks such as `Whitetail’, `July’ and `Closer’ still upheld the LOW watermark. Although songs `Dinosaur Act’ (also issued as a UK single) and `Whore’ stepped towards a rockier area, with fuzz guitar being used in the latter, in amongst the soaring vocals of Sparhawk, Parker and her crashing high hat percussion.
Not as poignant or as beautiful as their previous set (where nearly every track was a classic), “Things We Lost…” demonstrated the group’s abilities to write great, kinetic compositions, while still maintaining the sad-core motif that had become so synonymous with the group. A split EP was issued that April with underground artist, K, and although LOW were on top form (produced as they were by Warn DeFever), it was really K’s tremendous contribution that shone out most on the set.
In another bizarre but brilliant twist in LOW’s un-bowing direction, the trio issued an exclusive cover single of The SMITHS’ `Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me’ (for Rough Trade Records!), a stark and dramatic contrast to the original, with strings cascading into crescendos; the Mormon couple’s vocals sound as strange and as powerful as always. It was also worth mentioning the B-side track `Because You Stood Still’; how did two songs so incredible get omitted from an album?
LOW returned in September of 2002 with the delicately crafted Tchad Blake-produced TRUST {*6}, a slightly unadorned set from the usually and consistently reliable group. The album, which saw LOW delve deeper into sparse and darker terrain, may have been saved from droning obscurity by Parker’s airy alternating vocals and the group’s undeniable knack for writing beautiful songs, no matter how dark and eerie. From the post-shoegazing `Canada’, to the sublimely soulful `Time Is The Diamond’ and `Tonight’, had they just stuck MY BLOODY VALENTINE on the turntable? – at the wrong speed!
Having a little time on their hands to kick-start their new label, Chairkickers’ Music, and having already delivered the odd cover (among exclusive singles/EPs/V-A collections) by way of The Supreme Dicks’ `Jack Smith’, NEIL YOUNG’s `Down By The River’ and JOY DIVISION’s `A Means To An End’ and `Transmission’, LOW also pieced together a boxed-set in A LIFETIME OF TEMPORARY RELIEF: 10 YEARS OF B-SIDES & RARITIES (2004) {*7}; press-play covers:- `Heartbeat’ (WIRE), `I Started A Joke’ (The BEE GEES), `Long Long Long’ (GEORGE HARRISON), `Lord, Can You Hear Me?’ (SPACEMEN 3), `Blue-Eyed Devil’ (SOUL COUGHING), `Back Home Again’ (JOHN DENVER), `Surfer Girl’ (The BEACH BOYS), `Blowin’ In The Wind’ (BOB DYLAN), `Open Arms’ (JOURNEY), `…I Love’ (TOM T. HALL), `Carnival Queen’ (JANDEK) and `Fearless’ (PINK FLOYD).
With the ubiquitous David Fridmann at the helm, THE GREAT DESTROYER (2005) {*7} – LOW’s first for the Sub Pop stable – marked the commercial turning point in the band’s career. While `Silver Rider’ malingered with as sorrowful an intent as ever, it was the likes of `Just Stand Back and lead single, `California’, that fulfilled the pre-release prophecies of a bona fide “rock” record; invigorated tempos, buoyant hooks and all. Even death-watch closer, `Walk Into The Sea’, sounded liberated rather than oppressed. After more than a decade in the band, Zak Sally was duly replaced by Matt Livingston.
Studio album number seven or eight (depending on one’s opinion to what constitutes an album), DRUMS AND GUNS (2007) {*7} lamented the war and consequential tensions in the Middle East and the rest of the world; ominous and confrontational tracks like `Belarus’, `Sandinista’, `Dust On The Window’, `Pretty People’ and `Murderer’, nagged the listener into submission (or a conscience) as the trio swept up the aftermath of each heartfelt dirge.
Having given us a low-key SOLO GUITAR {*6} in 2006, SPARHAWK spearheaded side-project, RETRIBUTION GOSPEL CHOIR; at first as a primarily live combo. Completed by Livingston and No Wait Wait’s sticksman, Eric Pollard, the main man could indulge in something a bit more beefy and stoner-like on their eponymous RETRIBUTION GOSPEL CHOIR (2008) {*7}. `Take Your Time’ and `Breaker’ (from LOW’s previous set), were now of the sprawling NEIL YOUNG & CRAZY HORSE grunge aplomb; subsequent sets, 2 (2010) {*6} – Steve Garrington had now been added to both RGC and LOW – plus 3 (2013) {*5}, gave Sparhawk further leeway in his quest to wig out; the latter featured only a couple of lengthy, jam-friendly cuts.
The new LOW line-up veered towards brighter and lighter soft-rock territory on C’MON (2011) {*8}. Also featuring WILCO man Nels Cline, violinist Caitlin Moe and co-producer Matt Beckley, the modern-day PARSONS-HARRIS-like combination of partners Sparhawk and Parker, polish up their sad-core with dynamic melodies care of the dreamy `Try To Sleep’, the folky `You See Everything’ and the TEENAGE FANCLUB-like `Witches’. Contemplating a change in the tertian music world, the speaker-blasting `Nothing But Heart’ is tempered by the fragility of `Especially Me’ and `$20’.
Marking ten albums in twenty years, THE INVISIBLE WAY (2013) {*7}, was LOW’s breakthrough commercially, climbing as it did to No.76 in their homeland and the Top 50 in Britain (their second to do so). Produced by WILCO’s Jeff Tweedy, the bleak and brittle blending of the trio drew from the roots of alt-country (example `Holy Ghost’ and `Waiting’), while they flicked the page into a new chapter courtesy of `Plastic Cup’, `Amethyst’ and the drooling `Just Make It Stop’.
Happiness not a word in the sadcore’s repertoire, the trusted trio opted to work alongside producer BJ Burton for 2015’s UK Top 40 set ONES AND SIXES {*8}. The Spartan Sparhawk and Co – Mimi and Garrington wintry and wistful as ever – reserve a place at funeral parlours via the delicately dour `No Comprende’, `Spanish Translation’, `Congregation’ and the near-10-minute `Landslide’. Sounding positively EURYTHMIC-esque on `What Part Of Me’ and 80s-indie on `The Innocents’, LOW reach a higher, heavenly echelon, bringing a ray of sunshine to any dull day looking out over a 13-storey tower-block.
Although 3 years down the line, producer BJ Burton was still their go-to man for the electro-dominated DOUBLE NEGATIVE (2018) {*7}; their best UK showing ever at No.26. The atmospheric and abrasive LOW were now appropriating the use of Auto-Tune to enhance the fractured mood swings of each vocal. Strangely enough, it worked for the most part, as songs such as the glitchy `Quorum’, the heart-beating `Dancing And Blood’, the hypnotic `Always Up’ and the pulsating `Disarray’, took the listener to some alien utopia of static and discord.
© MC Strong 1999-2006/GRD / rev-up MCS Mar2013-Sep2018

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