Bad Reputation

Low hopes its slow-and-depressing label was one thing Lost in the Fire

At that point, just as his momentum has reached its peak, Sparhawk picks up the other line, where he has a brief conversation with someone from Kranky Records, the Chicago-based label that will release Things We Lost in the Fire this month, and that also put out 1999's Secret Name. Trying to pick up where we left off, Sparhawk asks what he was talking about when he was interrupted. After hearing his strength-through-adversity mission statement and his theories about how to find a new Low, Sparhawk dismisses it all with a laughed-off "Yeah, well, whatever." Experience has shown him that it's futile, that the gesture is empty. The people who get it will always get it. And to the people who don't . . .

"We're still the slow, quiet, depressing band," he deadpans, referring again to the three-word tag that has haunted the group since it released I Could Live in Hope in 1994. "Right." Sparhawk laughs, sort of, sounding more like someone cheerfully clearing his throat. "It's a little frustrating," he says. "I mean, after you do it for a while, your ego starts saying, 'Well, I want to be respected as a songwriter, not as that slow band.' We ran into that pretty early on. By the time we'd done our second record, and started seeing that, you know, we were very quickly getting painted into a corner, I don't know that we fretted about it too much. It was just kinda like, 'Well, whatever.' The people who make those knee-jerk reactions, no matter how much you scream and holler and try to change their observation, they're still only going to listen to the first five seconds of a song. They're not going to listen to the record anyway. We were fairly confident that the people we really cared about would probably listen to the whole record."

Listening to the whole record isn't absolutely essential to understanding that Low is more than just "the slow, quiet, depressing band." Okay, yes, Things We Lost in the Fire is definitely slow, more often than not quiet, and if you're in the right (or wrong) mood, it possibly could be depressing. Still, the album -- recorded by Steve Albini and featuring a guest appearance by Ghostcar's Daniel Huffman -- is more than just a Valium waltz, the latest in a series of albums that have inspired writers to hit their thesauruses for such words as "somnambulant" and "lugubrious" and "glacial." On the surface, those words seem to fit Things We Lost in the Fire too, the way Sparhawk strums his guitar just enough so someone won't take it away from him, and how Parker's voice hangs in the air like a pop-up to third base on songs like "Laser Beam."

Low: From left, Mimi Parker, Alan Sparhawk and Zak Sally.
Daniel Corrigan
Low: From left, Mimi Parker, Alan Sparhawk and Zak Sally.
The world's best Low cover band: Low onstage, scrambling.
The world's best Low cover band: Low onstage, scrambling.

The difference is, there is a warmth -- no pun intended -- on Things We Lost in the Fire, a bit player on previous records that the band finally brings front and center. To put it a different way, if the rest of Low's albums were a Monday in the dead of winter, Things We Lost in the Fire is a Sunday morning on the verge of spring -- calm and relaxed and full of life. When the horns finally announce themselves on "Dinosaur Act," it's like green leaves poking through the frost, a new road on an old map. Things We Lost in the Fire is the kind of transition album that doesn't reject the past; it refines it.

Taking everything into consideration, it's not surprising that Things We Lost in the Fire would be somewhat different from Secret Names or anything else Low has recorded, really. The band may not have changed since the last album -- and it hasn't since Sally replaced original bassist John Nichols after I Could Live in Hope -- but Sparhawk and Parker's life did: Early last year, the couple had their first child, a daughter, Hollis Mae Sparhawk. Which pretty much changes everything.

"I long for the days where I can just sit in the basement and strum my guitar," Sparhawk says. "But with the baby and everything, we actually have to plan ahead now [laughs]. When we go on tour, no longer do we just kind of play the show, get in the van, and go, 'Well, where are we staying tonight?' We actually have to do that in advance, which is a lot more complicated than it sounds."

"It changes a lot of things," he continues. "It's a little bit more of an organizational factor. You know? More people in the van now. We need more beds. We don't drive 12 hours a day anymore. Eight is about as good as it gets. Other than surface stuff like that, I don't know, it's kind of exciting. It puts a new spin on what we've been doing, and it's high time, I think. We're going on eight years now, and it's kind of a neat challenge to now have a new factor to kind of deal with. We did a couple of tours this past fall -- October and November -- and one of them was in Europe, so that was even more of a test."

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