On February 18, 1994, Low released their debut album, I Could Live in Hope, to a music world that didn’t know what to do with it. In the week their album released, Beck’s hit song “Loser” had already spent three weeks at the top of Billboard's Alternative Songs chart and Nirvana’s singles from their album In Utero also hovered near the top of the charts since the album dropped in September 1993.
In the early years of the 1990s, as grunge was peaking in popularity, it seemed foolish to break the mold that popular alternative bands created. If you were too quiet, weren’t aggressive or angsty enough, and/or put on a toned-down performance in front of crowds across the United States, you wouldn’t break the charts.
When Alan Sparhawk, Mimi Parker, and John Nichols began performing as Low in 1993, most music consumers of the era were not impressed.
Drum kits consisting of multiple cymbals and floor toms erected on stage as battle thrones for their drummers weren’t unusual, but Mimi Parker often only brought a single floor tom and cymbal to perform with and opted to use a drum brush instead of drumsticks. On stage, Sparhawk and Nichols stood mostly still, Sparhawk in front the mic with his eyes closed and focused on his guitar, Nichols shifting his weight while playing his minimal notes on the bass.
Instead of music that asked to be turned up to 11, theirs was probably around a 4 or 5 at most.
On “Words,” the opening track of I Could Live in Hope, Parker gently drums a simple beat throughout the entire length of the track, a constant light picking of a cymbal and a steady tap on a snare that’s light on attack.
Sparhawk elongates himself as his vocals echo out over the vast and empty horizon so when Parker and Sparhawk harmonize on the chorus. “And I can hear ’em,” they croon mournfully. The line acts as a beacon in the desolate worlds that they create. Between the harmonies, Sparhawk and Nichols strum together single notes on their bass and guitar that accentuate their sparseness.
Their slow approach to crafting music using scattered, but mindful, sounds is best exemplified on “Lullaby.” In the first 30 seconds of the song, Sparhawk and Nichols open with a slow tempo of few notes of guitar and bass, with most of the space filled by the waning reverb of the notes. Parker enters forcefully with her concise lyrics, allowing her voice’s echo and underlying guitar and bass to fill the space rather than her active singing.
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Over the next decades, Low would go on to continue their “less is more” philosophy, such as on their 2002 album Trust, and open up to more experimentation that brought in more production, a higher tempo and a more forceful sound. This transition is best seen on their first album released after making the switch to Sub Pop in 2004 for The Great Destroyer. In 2005, Jeff Gross wrote in the Village Voice that the album was “the great thaw.”
Low are once again stepping on new ground with their 2018 album, Double Negative. As the album title suggests, any remaining constraints Low might have picked up over their 24-year lifespan have been vanquished, partly in thanks to the production by BJ Burton. His work with much less minimal projects like Bon Iver, Sylvan Esso, and Hippo Campus shines through.
As Low embarks on their Double Negative tour across North America and Europe, the quiet and reserved performances that would sometimes be overpowered by an argument at the bar are gone.