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Low Turn Quiet Grandeur Into Stirring Emotions

Low -- 'C'mon' -- Sub Pop -- 4 STARS

By Galila M. Gray, Contributing Writer

Only on a Low album would a minute-long, near-silent introduction of dolorous piano notes and guitar drones seem like the ultimate distillation of the band’s style. This has always been their sound, and “C’mon” is no different. The songs are not laden with superfluous frills or overly dramatic lyrics: instead, simple melodies confidently stand on their own and make the album play like a laid-back, ten-movement symphony—a cohesive work in which all the songs fit firmly into a well-defined aesthetic structure. Save for a few missteps, this method produces yet another well-composed slowcore album complete with minimalist compositions and subdued melodies.

Low’s heavy reliance on instrumentals and evocatively vague lyrical snippets on this album allows their artistry to flourish. Their creative freedom is best evidenced by the beautifully spare “Done”: though the song’s crescendo is not what would normally be expected of a climax in rock music, Low’s skillful command of dynamics enables the band to bring the track to an emotional peak with the mere addition of a pedal steel guitar and a more noticeable harmony.

Their stylized sparseness is also reflected in their lyrics. Poignant and pensive, “Majesty/Magic” is a perfect example of the importance of their lyrical brevity; the refrain “Oh Majesty” is one of the few lines in the song, yet it conveys a certain passion and bears an emotional weight that few artists can express with so few words. “$20,” by stark contrast, displays how this method fails to produce listenable music—the bland, lyrical loop of “my love is for free” drags on ceaselessly. Equally feeble guitar chords do nothing to compensate for the lack of inspiring lyrics. On the album’s best tracks, lead singer Alan Sparhawk’s baritone is intriguingly weary, but on “$20” it sounds flat, melodramatic, and self-pitying.

Only in “Especially Me” does the band stray away from the well-established mold to successfully add a little versatility to the mix. It includes a compelling metaphor preceded by a repeated guitar arpeggio: “Cry me a river / So I can float over to you / The bearer to deliver the news.” The impeccable pairing of these two equally strong elements makes this one of the superior tracks on the album. “Nightingale,” another standout, opens with serene, reverberating guitar chords and continues in a similarly beautifully evocative vein. The airy, optimistic vibe provides a welcome complement to the characteristic weight of the other tracks. Low’s vocal harmonies soar in the chorus—“Oh nightingale / Don’t you cry”—and the simple layering also works quite nicely in “You See Everything,” a stirring duet.

Unsurprisingly, Low fails when they leave their slowcore comfort zone. A spastic, blatantly atypical electric guitar introduction wrenches the album out of its lush serenity in “Nothing But Heart,” and not even a smooth return to a mid-tempo section salvages this track. The dirge-like “Witches” provides the same drama that “Nothing but Heart” aims for, but it aligns much more smoothly with the band’s quintessential style. However, the ominous lyrics—“When you have finally submitted to embarrassing capture / Take out that baseball bat and show those witches some pasture”—are slightly nullified by the misplaced twang of a banjo. Though those two components clash, a more fitting somber guitar solo towards the end of the piece brings it back up to par. Album closer “Something’s Turning Over” does much better to incorporate bluegrass-tinged, folk-like qualities. Despite its rather bizarre lyrics—“Angels setting fire to the ocean / Pirates making liars out of men / I don’t think we’ll ever see their faces / I don’t think we’ll ever see the end”—the track still allows the record to end on a high note.

Low has spent almost two decades as a band, yet they still produce original and compelling music, at their best when they remain in their niche. It’s a shame that some of the songs on this album will probably never see nationwide airplay, but perhaps, like their music, quietness suits them best.

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