The new album by Low, Ones and Sixes, is something of a change for the long-running Duluth, Minn., band. The sonic textures are different this time, a bit more electronic and ambient, with some blips and beeps subtly blending into the band’s vocal harmonies and guitar chords. Low played many of the new songs on Saturday, Sept. 19, at Thalia Hall. The live versions didn’t sound drastically different from the studio recordings, but they helped to placed these songs into the context of what Low has been doing for more than 20 years: making music that’s beautiful in its serenity and spareness.
The trio (Alan Sparhawk on guitar and vocals, Mimi Parker on drums and vocals, and Steve Garrington on bass and keyboards) played several songs from other recent albums, and dug further back into its catalog for songs such as “In Metal” and one of my favorites, “Death of a Salesman.” It was a seated show, and audience members barely moved or said anything as Low performed. The band didn’t move around much, either. But as calm as it all looked, the music achieved a fierce intensity.
See my photos of the 2013 Pitchfork Music Festival for The A.V. Club: Days 1, 2 and 3. I’ve included photos in this blog post.
For a long while now, Pitchfork has been about a lot more than indie rock. The Pitchfork website and the Pitchfork Music Festival both have a history of mixing obscure, strange and intellectual music with unabashedly mainstream pop. This past weekend, the festival put an exclamation point on that attitude by booking controversial R&B superstar R. Kelly as one of three headliners. The other two were more typical examples of the sort of music originally associated years ago with Pitchfork: Björk and Belle & Sebastian.
In theory, I like this idea of mashing Top 40 artists and DIY bands together into one musical amusement park. It pushes fans out of their comfort zones, helping them to discover artists they’ve previously ignored because of a bias toward particular genres. I’m one of those music fans who needs some pushing. Call me an indie snob … a guitar-centric elitist … a rockist. I’ve been ignoring the vast majority of mainstream music for the past few decades. The reason is simple. To my ears, most of it sounds overproduced, unimaginative and uninteresting. I realize that the sonic style of this stuff — the way this music tends to be performed and packaged — probably leads me to overlook some creative and well-crafted songs. But it feels like a chore to sift through it all to find whatever gems might be hidden in there.
So … R. Kelly? Sorry. I’ve barely even listened to the guy. What I have heard didn’t make me want to continue listening. The controversy over the disturbing criminal charges he once faced — and was acquitted of — doesn’t make me especially eager to dig any deeper into his music, either. This weekend, I was taking photos for The A.V. Club. After being allowed to take pictures from the photographers pit during R. Kelly’s first song on Sunday night, I had fulfilled my duty. And I needed to get home to edit a day’s worth of photos. So I left Union Park at that point, missing most of R. Kelly’s set. I’ll leave it up to other writers to say whether his performance was what R. Kelly fans wanted to get out of the experience. Judging from most of the comments I’ve seen, his fans rated the concert as a smashing success. From what I did hear, I doubt that R. Kelly would have made a new fan out of me.
I did stay for Björk on Friday night. There was never any doubt about that. And I stayed for every minute of Belle & Sebastian. Both of these iconic artists delivered terrific performances — the only problem being the weather alert about an approaching storm that forced Björk to end her concert prematurely, cutting a few songs off her set list. Certainly, Björk’s more recent compositions aren’t as catchy as the earlier songs, but even the less memorable tunes came off as intriguing, complex creations as she performed Friday, wearing a sparkly set of spikes on her head. The set’s emotional climax was the moment when Björk sang “I love him, I love him, I love him, I love him…” in “Pagan Poetry,” tilting her head skyward, while her choir of female harmony singers responded, “She loves him, she loves him…” And then, shortly after Björk conjured some bottled lightning with a Tesla coil, actual lightning sparked in the dark clouds overhead.
Nothing so dramatic occurred during Belle & Sebastian’s set the following night. It was, quite simply, a fun time — a lively concert packed with so many fabulous songs that it was hard to imagine how anyone could come away from it without being a Belle & Sebastian fan.
The three-day festival had plenty of other highlights for me. Woods jammed with a more Byrdsy vibe than ever. Swans droned and declaimed with frightening intensity. Savages made good on their hype. Wire started off a bit slow but finished with a strong buzz. Yo La Tengo played loud, and then quiet — so damn quiet that you had to listen — and then loud again.
…And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead dug into its songs with fierce power. Foxygen’s flailing lead singer, Sam France, climbed halfway up the red stage’s metal support column and jumped down, as the band fell into a delightfully shambolic groove. Phosphorescent leader Matthew Houck’s voice keened with longing. Julia Holter’s music floated as she stood as still as a statue. And Waxahatchee’s songs blossomed from bedroom folk into slacker rock.
Alas, I wasn’t able to stay for whole sets by Mikal Cronin, Angel Olsen, Low and Metz, but they all sounded great for the few songs of each that I did catch. (I wasn’t there when Low closed its set with a cover of Rihanna’s “Stay,” transforming a mainstream pop song into, well, a Low song.) And I wish I’d seen more of Parquet Courts to figure out what all the fuss is about.
What else happened over the weekend? Pissed Jeans cavorted with glee. Daughn Gibson intoned with brash confidence. Trash Talk praised old people for “having us all and shit.” The Breeders fumbled. Mac DeMarco stuck out his tongue. Joanna Newsom plucked her harp and warbled, the subtleties of her songs getting a bit lost in the park.
I went into this Pitchfork fest with a bias toward old-fashioned, guitar-based indie rock, and I came out of the weekend with my bias intact. Still a rockist, but trying to be open-minded. Toro Y Moi’s frothy pop did nothing for me. M.I.A. put on an impressive and energetic show, but her music quickly wore me down, as it has in the past. I still have no idea what Lil B is all about, other than the fact that he has some really enthusiastic fans. Solange, Beyonce’s sweetly smiling sister, seemed to charm much of the audience. Hearing her music for the first time, it struck me as unremarkable. Maybe just not my cup of tea.
And so, when New York Times critic Jon Caramanica writes that the Pitchfork fest’s second half “served as a reminder of how dance music has become the most exciting emergent narrative in pop,” I have to wonder: What was I missing? I much preferred the weekend’s indie rock, which included, according to Caramanica, “bands in various stages of delusion and defensiveness.”
Killer Mike won me over, though. Of all the hip-hop artists I watched at Pitchfork, he was the one who had the most to say, even if his rap denouncing Ronald Reagan’s lies in the Iran-contra affair seemed oddly dated. “I want to encourage Chicago to take care of each other,” he said in one of his mini-sermons in between his raps, apparently alluding to the city’s violence. “I’d like to encourage the people of Chicago to look out for one another.” Later in his set, looking out on a Pitchfork audience that was more racially diverse than it had been on previous days, Killer Mike declared, “This is what church is supposed to look like.”
See my photos of the 2013 Pitchfork Music Festival for The A.V. Club: Days 1, 2 and 3.
Read more about Solid Sound and see more photos in Parts 1, 2 and 4
My last two blog posts about Solid Sound were about what the members of Wilco were up to during this festival. But like any decent fest, this one wasn’t entirely about one band. In brief, the other highlights included a high-energy show on Saturday afternoon by The Dream Syndicate, who were cult favorites in the 1980s California indie-rock scene. This was their first North American gig in more than two decades, but as it felt like they’d never stopped playing.
Yo La Tengo played not one, but two shows during Solid Sound. Alas, I arrived too late on Friday night to get a set at the screening of the film The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller, featuring a live score performed by Yo La Tengo. On Saturday afternoon, the group played a typically excellent set of its songs, both old and new, with the most drastic shift in dynamics I heard all weekend. After blasting a couple of noisy songs to open their concert, Yo La Tengo took the volume way, way down for a couple of its hushed, whispery ballads, “The Point of It” and “Decora” — and it seemed like everyone in the crowd stopped making any sound so they could listen in. (At least, that’s what it was like by the stage, where I was standing.) By the end of the set, the band back at full volume.
Out of all the artists playing at Solid Sound, the one that seemed to represent younger, hyped bands was Foxygen. Just as they acted goofy during their recent in-store at Chicago’s Saki, Foxygen’s members seemed loopy at Solid Sound as they cavorted on the stage, playing their quirky, catchy songs. Perhaps they cavorted a bit too much. I heard most of Foxygen’s set, but I was away from the stage when lead singer Sam France reportedly tried to climb the scaffolding and got pulled down by security. Later in the day, I noticed three security guards surrounding Foxygen’s tambourine player, who looked intoxicated, and escorting him away from a tree. During Wilco’s show that night, Jeff Tweedy told the audience that the members of Foxygen had been “kicked out” of the festival. “They’re awesome. A little too awesome, I think,” he said. Later, he apologized, saying he hadn’t meant to disparage the band. But he dedicated the song “Passenger Side,” a song about drunk driving, to Foxygen. And then Tweedy brought up Foxygen one more time, suggesting that they might want to try drinking water onstage. The Reverse Direction blog has more about the Foxygen story. Whatever happened, I was charmed by what I saw of Foxygen’s set.
Although Low got some flack for playing one long droning song at the recent Rock the Garden festival in Minneapolis, the band played a standard set of its songs at Solid Sound on Saturday. And with Low, standard means beautiful.
Neko Case is another artist who nearly always delivers a good to great performance, and her show on Saturday night included a few songs from her forthcoming album The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You, which comes out Sept. 3 on Anti. On first impression, the new songs sounded like a strong continuation of the singular style of music Case has been shaping over her last few records. For me, the highlight of the set was a heart-stopping performance of her 2002 song “I Wish I Was the Moon,” with Case’s voice plaintively calling out across the park in the opening verse. “We’re kind of a weird band for a festival because all of songs are bummers,” Case remarked at one point. Her stalwart harmony singer, Kelly Hogan, pointed out: “Low played earlier.” At the end of her set, Case said, “Every single song in our set is dedicated to that girl playing drums on her dad’s head.”
Read more about Solid Sound and see more photos in Parts 1, 2 and 4
Saki record store in Logan Square was packed Thursday evening (March 7) for a free performance by Low, followed by a Q&A including the band as well as Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, who produced the new Low album, The Invisible Way. And as if all that weren’t enough incentive to bring out a crowd, there was also free beer. This was part of the monthly “Off the Record” series of free listening parties, presented by the city of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events and saki. “Listening parties” tend to involve a new record being played, and that happened, too — The Invisible Way, which comes out March 19, was playing in the store before the live performance.
The performance was billed as a “stripped-down” show by Low. But of course, Low has always played some pretty bare, stripped-down music. So some of trio’s live renditions probably weren’t all that much different from what the band will play when it returns to Chicago for a full concert March 22 at Metro. In any case, it was a beautiful set of serene yet passionate music, with intimate harmonies between guitarist Alan Sparhawk and drummer Mimi Parker. Steve Garrington, who has normally played bass with Low since joining the band in 2008, played on the record store’s piano throughout this set. The new record features a lot of piano, too. As the group explained during the Q&A, that’s because the album has more songs than usual by Parker, who writes her songs on the piano — despite, by her admission, not really knowing how to play the instrument.
WXRT’s Marty Lennartz asked questions during the Q&A, before opening it up to the audience. Tweedy emphasized how he tried to stay out of the band’s way, producing the record with a light touch. “It’s my favorite thing I’ve ever been a part of,” he said. The interview concluded with Tweedy displaying the albums that members of Low were purchasing at Saki, including (pictured below), Pat Travers’ Makin’ Magic.
The free concert Monday evening (June 27) at Millennium Park’s Pritzker Pavilion was one of those shows that had you wondering: Who’s everyone here to see, the headline or the opening act? I was there for the headliner, Low, who have a terrific new album out, C’mon, and put on a great show back in April at Lincoln Hall. The fact that Glen Hansard was opening seemed like a nice bonus. But clearly Hansard, the lead singer of the Frames and one-half of the Swell Season duo that gained fame and fans in the film Once, drew a large contingent of concertgoers Monday. His modest acoustic songs were pleasant enough, and Hansard threw himself into some of the songs with an almost startling intensity — including a cover of Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks.” A predominantly female bunch of Hansard fans oohed and ahh’ed at all of this, and then a lot of them packed up and left before Low took the stage. Their loss.
Low played a set that was pretty similar to the recent one at Lincoln Hall, playing most of the new record and a sample of a few older songs, climaxing with “When I Go Deaf” as the encore. It was beautiful to behold the vocal harmonies of guitarist Alan Sparhawk and drummer Mimi Parker soaring out into the summer air at Millennium Park as the songs unfolded with stately grace — evoking both of the words in the title of one song, “Majesty/Magic.”
It got as quiet as a church in Lincoln Hall Thursday night (April 21) in the moments in between songs. It wasn’t that the audience wasn’t applauding the mesmerizing, beautiful songs it was hearing from the band Low. Appreciative applause followed each song. But then, as the crowd waited for the band to begin another song, a hush fell over the room. What can you hear in such silence? I heard a deep respect. Fans who wanted to hear every note, who weren’t interested in making chit-chat. Low’s singer-guitarist, Alan Sparhawk, even joked about how quiet the crowd was, but he must be used to getting this sort of reception.
Low’s music demands it. On its early records, Low played music that was almost supernaturally quiet, with a slow, steady beat and whispered words. Over the years, Low has expanded its dynamic range, cranking up the volume and feedback on many of its songs, but there’s still a sense of quiet and a steady purpose behind the music. Low’s new record, C’mon, its first in five years, is outstanding. Recorded in a Duluth church, it captures the lovely vocals of Sparhawk and his wife, drummer Mimi Parker, in all of their choir-like glory.
Thursday’s concert featured many of the songs on the new record, and Lincoln Hall’s acoustics replicated that church atmosphere perfectly. Supplemented by bass and keyboards, Sparhawk and Parker blended their placid voices with subtle, steady rhythms to dramatic effect. Parker calmly stood as she played drums, using just brushes and mallets, no hard-tipped drumsticks, on a minimal kit: just two cymbals, a snare and a tom. Even when the music is in a low-key passage, Sparhawk had an intense look about him, tilting his head this way and that, squinting his eyes and scrunching up his face.
Of course, the concert also featured some of Low’s older songs, and those sounded wonderful as well. The concert concluded with a moving, progressively louder performance of “When I Go Deaf,” from the 2005 record The Great Destroyer — a song that faces the idea of losing the ability to hear songs with an oddly resigned attitude of acceptance. “When I go deaf/I won’t even mind/Yeah, I’ll be all right/I’ll be just fine…” The concept of not being able to hear music like the songs Low played Thursday night make is almost too sad to contemplate, however.
Plus the encore: Murderer / Canada / Violent Past / When I Go Deaf
The opening act, Gaberdine, performed a nice set of moody folk-rock songs accented with cello and trumpet. A good match with Low, although more reminiscent of bands such as the Low Anthem and Bowerbirds www.myspace.com/gaberdine
Mysterious monkeys are making more appearances in music. Are they merely metaphorical? The latest monkey allusion comes in the great opening track of the Low album The Great Destroyer — titled, simply enough, “Monkey.” The somewhat ominous chorus proclaims, “Tonight, you will be mine. Tonight, the monkey dies.”
So is someone about to commit primate sacrifice in order to achieve a romantic conquest? Poor monkey. Who knows what these guys from Duluth, Minnesota, are up to, but they seem like a pretty wholesome bunch, so let’s assume this tale of monkey death isn’t based on personal experience.
The Low song follows Gillian Welch’s “One Monkey,” from the 2003 Soul Journey album, in which she engimatically declared, “One monkey don’t stop the show…” (No, I suppose not.) “…so get on board.” This particular monkey has something to do with a freight train.
Of course, Peter Gabriel had a hit with “Shock the Monkey,” though I’m not sure that song’s in the same spirit as these. (And I prefer the novelty of the song’s German version, “Shock den Affen.”)
More appropriate is the Beatles’ “Everything’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey.” No one seems to be hiding their monkeys these days, though.
The monks have broken their vow of silence. Low, the Duluth trio famous for its quiet, slow music, has gradually moved toward more aggressive sounds, culminating with the excellent new album The Great Destroyer (Sub Pop).
The mix of quiet, delicate moments and louder rave-ups sounded great in concert. Low still knows how to bring a hush over an audience. Low’s strength lies in compelling melodies, putting them across with cool harmonies and a minimum of musical accompaniment. How many other bands have a drummer who plays the whole show standing up?
Alan Sparhawk dedicated the new song “Death of a Salesman” to Arthur Miller, the author of the play of the same title, who’d died earlier in the day. He also noted he was playing it on a guitar signed by Chuck D. It’s a lovely and haunting song, performed solo by Sparhawk, in which the narrator gives up his efforts at writing music after being told by friends: “Music’s for fools, you shoul go back to school, the future is prisons and math.” It’s not the only song on The Great Destroyer about negation or abandoning music. Another track wistfully imagines the day “When I Go Deaf,” before erupting into a chaotic guitar solo.
Opening act Pedro the Lion played a solid set of tunes, sticking close to the band’s signature sound, pausing for a peculiar question-and-answer session with the audience (in which one man asked permission to use Pedro the Lion songs in a movie he’s making). The band cut loose on a cover of Neil Young’s “Revolution Blues,” joined by Sparhawk on guitar.
Pedro the Lion was preceded by an interesting solo performance by Tim Rutuli of Califone, who proved himself adept at both folksy blues and impromptu sonic experimentation (building layers of sound with a Casio “Rap Man”).
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