"We like to see how little we can get away with," says Zak Sally, bassist for Duluth, Minnesota's Low. "If there's too much in a song, we try to pare away as much as is completely possible. We like to keep it as minimal as we can."
And minimal it is. In the excessive--and sometimes annoying--world of alternative rock, Low's sparse, ethereal attributes are the direct antithesis of everything resembling Bush. The hushed crooning and beautiful sleepy-time structures created by Sally, drummer/vocalist Mimi Parker and guitarist/vocalist Alan Sparhawk bring to mind a series of deep, meditative breaths that seem to stop time in its tracks. Even at its noisiest, Low never rises above a rebellious whisper--and more often than not, the group can be found awash in a sea of tranquillity. According to Parker, one of the keys to Low's sound is silence. "We like to play with time and space in our music," she points out. "We intentionally create gaps in between notes, because we feel they're just as important to our music as the music itself."
The trio didn't just stumble across these painstaking musical values; on the contrary, Parker and Sparhawk (who are married) have been perfecting Low's passive-aggressive attack in their hometown of Duluth for more than three years. However, the pair didn't gain much national attention until they teamed up with bassist Sally and recorded their first long-player, I Could Live in Hope, in 1994. Produced by New York avant guru Kramer, Hope was distinguished by a stoic and at times sublime style that immediately caught the attention of indie music fans and numerous critics. Many went so far as to liken the act to Galaxie 500, a legendary Eighties group also known for its understated rock sensibilities. Parker, however, feels the comparisons are unjustified. As she puts it, "We were influenced by them. But we've been influenced by a lot of things. I mean, in junior high some of us listened to AC/DC. You can't really pinpoint any particular influence. We didn't set out to be like anybody in particular."
"If anything, we hope our music doesn't get too close to anything else," adds Sally, laughing. "Not that that would be a bad thing. It's just that if you start sounding too much like something else, then maybe you'd better start considering going in a different direction."
Long Division, the band's second Kramer-produced disc, demonstrates that the members of Low were content with the musical course they had chosen. The album delves even deeper into the airy approach heard on Hope. In fact, songs like "Shame" move along at so stately a pace that they might have prompted even Galaxie's Dean Wareham to start tapping his foot impatiently. Nonetheless, Long Division's euphoric harmonies and gentle guitar flourishes were impressive enough to win the band opening slots on tours with acclaimed acts such as Soul Coughing, Luna and Pell Mell, an instrumental group fronted by renowned producer Steve Fisk.
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Although Fisk's resume includes collaborations with Nirvana and Beat Happening--hardly the quietest of combos--he was so smitten by Low that he offered to produce its next effort. The Curtain Hits the Cast, the result of this teaming, features twelve new Low gems that are reminiscent of material found on its first two albums but that sound richer and more refined by comparison. "Over the Ocean" and "Do You Know the Waltz," among others, showcase Low's burgeoning songwriting maturity--a quality that Fisk's boardwork helps bring to the forefront.
Those hoping to hear a fancier, beefier Low sound will have to search elsewhere. Production-wise, Curtain is as plain and to the point as anything else the band has ever done. The circumstances of its recording had a lot to do with the CD's unadorned nature; although Low spent more time in the studio with Curtain than with any previous platter, the project still took only ten days to complete. "We write songs so that we can play them live," Parker explains. "As a result, we don't want to fill our records with all sorts of little studio tricks--anything we can't reproduce on stage. Obviously, there are some things--like some keyboards and tympani--that we can't do live. But basically, if the essence doesn't come across live, we steer away from it in the studio."
Don't the musicians ever get the urge to emulate their more volume-happy contemporaries? In other words, are there any covers of the Dead Boys' "Sonic Reducer" in their future? Hardly. "It never really occurs to us to 'rock out,'" Parker notes in her typically staid manner. "At least not within the context of this band. It doesn't really strike us to do that in terms of Low. Because it just isn't what we do."
Low, with the Violet Burning. 8:30 p.m. Monday, October 7, Mercury Cafe, 2199 California Street, $6-$7, all ages, 830-