February 5, 2005
PONDERING THE MANY SHADES OF DESOLATION AND DESPAIR
Thursday was introverts' night out when Low headlined a sold-out show at the Bowery Ballroom along with Pedro the Lion, and Aarktica. None of the three bands bothered with much stage action. They were busy contemplating their instruments, the music's textures and the steadfast desolation of their songs.
Low turned a concept into a sound when it formed in 1993. Its rigorously understated music was akin to the deliberation of Velvet Underground ballads, the purity of Appalachian lullabies and the Americana of John Fahey's guitar solos. The style was soon labeled slowcore, and for most of the last decade, Low's songs have been determinedly slow, sparse and calmly desolate. The band can silence a club with the austere concentration of its music: a few guitar chords from Alan Sparhawk; a steady and rudimentary drumbeat from his wife, Mimi Parker (who stands up at a minimal drum kit); and a modest underpinning from Zak Sally on bass. Mr. Sparhawk sings with thoughtful determination; Ms. Parker harmonizes like a sympathetic wraith.
Quiet means little without the possibility of loudness. Every so often, particularly on stage, Low's songs begin to surge. A patient but unstoppable crescendo builds from within, fills out with reverbed and distorted guitar, then falls away to make its original hush seem even bleaker.
Slowcore isn't so slow anymore. Low's new album, "The Great Destroyer" (Sub Pop), includes some midtempo songs and thickens the arrangements. On stage the new songs didn't break the mood. Low extended them and pared them down to basics, not rocking out but rocking inward.
Pedro the Lion's despair arrived in more upbeat form: consistently melodic, precisely constructed songs laced with the instrumental counterpoints of new wave rock. But David Bazan's droopy, long-suffering voice doesn't conceal what his lyrics describe: a culture suffused by greed and relationships that hinge on power and betrayal. In one of the set's most buoyant tunes, "Transcontinental," the narrator is bleeding to death after a gruesome accident. There's no ironic smirk in the songs, though; somehow, they end up endearing, paradoxes and all.
Aarktica, which opened the show, was more meditative, erecting dense noise superstructures around serene loops of guitar. There were hints of South Asian music with the drone of a harmonium and vocal lines suggesting the modes of ragas or qawwali. These were urban, not pastoral meditations; one song, with a rhythm defined by bursts of static, was dedicated to the man who designed the lights of Times Square, as Jon DeRosa sang, "city planning is anatomy/ in your blood electricity."
The New York Times
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