Three quarters of the way through the Minnesota group's short set last night at the Bluebird, it was still possible to count the number of words lead singer Alan Sparhawk muttered between songs on two hands. For a group with well-documented lyrical insight and a conspicuously ominous stage presence, this is not only fine, it's expected. Fronting a tiny audience, the band began the night foreboding and ended it just plain droning. Small talk, it seems, just didn't fit on the setlist.
And though the crowd was hardly considerable (less than half-capacity), it was consistently captivated, staring wide-eyed at the humble band as it toured through the majority of latest album C'Mon with defiant stops at previous classics and earnest, well-worn crooners. "Nothing But Heart" perfectly introduced a band that uses little else in terms of its onstage sound, and its building, almost lethargic musical context was the first of many to blend softly into the next message. Although Sparhawk and his wife, percussionist and vocalist Mimi Parker, looked directly at each other only once during the show -- and then to confirm a song choice -- their creative chemistry is cemented in the almost Heathcliff-and-Catherine vibes with which they propel both the songs and their set.
But while the coupled vocals, the moody ambience and the intimate audience created a substantially charming, if consistently eerie, end product, Sparhawk is too comfortable extending the levels of low-key into low-energy territory. These guys are low-maintenance, to be sure, but bleak melodies, combined with four unabashedly awkward stage presences, verge occasionally into a low-impact zone. (A single empty beer cup falling to the crowd should not become a noticeable disturbance.) This is all repaired when, as they did with "Pissing" (The Great Destroyer), the group rallies to build a mercilessly stoic sound into a confident crescendo, only to let it die, without pause, before continuing to a song created six years later ("Try To Sleep") for an album with a completely different center of gravity (C'Mon).
Low is at its best, however, when the members just appear to be broken. Powerful, propulsive, carried by distortion, the sound seems in these moments to be wrung out of broken instruments and formed by a creative process that is almost architectural in its construction. Anchored by neat, tidy beats ("Especially Me") created by Parker's brushes -- never sticks -- or predicated on overwhelming tempo changes ("California"), the material is always quietly controlled with a forcefulness that shows itself at the joints. Sure, you could listen to this setlist as you fall asleep, but only if you like your dreams quietly menacing. There's something spiritual, here, even if it does look easy.
Last night's set list is on the next page.