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Low is putting it mildly
Warmed by Things We Lost in the Fire
by Mark Anderson

Leonard Cohen began a 1988 Carnegie Hall show so quietly that concertgoers exchanged worried glances: Something must be horribly wrong -- the volume is way too low!

It wasn't, of course.

Ears adjusted quickly and everything was fine. More than fine. Cohen and band, mostly quiet and subtle throughout, gathered extraordinary power whenever the volume was upped even slightly.

Low, an eight-year-old outfit out of Duluth, Minn., applies similar psychology in living up to its name: Dial way down and say interesting things; folks lean forward to listen.

Shhhhh: Things We Lost in the Fire is Low's recent release on the Kranky label.

At its best -- such as the trio's April 14 show at Portland's Aladdin Theater, or much of the recent Things We Lost in the Fire album -- Low works in sparest settings.

Snail's-pace percussion, glacial guitar, loping bass and somber harmonies by Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk create a leisurely tension. The resultant wide-open spaces, which often carry a slightly sinister tinge, make Parker's lovely voice all the more sublime.

Euphemisms abound: Dream pop? Sadcore? Slowcore? Ambient alternative?

In reality, the band began as an ironic answer to the so-called grunge scene of the early '90s.

Perhaps the easiest example, despite Low's considerable songwriting prowess, is a 1996 cover of "I Started a Joke," the 1969 Bee Gees smash. Pale and droning, Low slow-cooks the song toward its familiarly narcissistic climax: "... I finally died / which started the whole world living / if I'd only seen / that the joke was on me."

Jangly guitar. Pretty voices. Quiet slow motion.

Wrote the Feb. 4 Minneapolis StarTribune: "It's a formula that has made the trio -- guitarist/vocalist Sparhawk; his wife, drummer/vocalist Parker; and bassist Zak Sally -- Duluth's most significant musical export since little Bobby Zimmerman himself."

Responded Sparhawk: "... I was reasoning with myself that this was a real punk thing to do, to go in there and stick this stuff in people's faces that was contrary to what they came here for."

But enough irony already. Sometimes things are what they are, and seductive songwriting is the eternal key. Without melodic ingenuity and cryptic verse, volume levels are practically moot.

"Hold me closer than that," harmonize Parker and Sparhawk on "Closer" from the recent release. "Hold me closer than that. How'd we get here so fast? Hold me closer than that ..."

Sparhawk's choirboy voice, ala Art Garfunkel, often soars above the huskier timbre of Parker, a stand-up drummer who lightly brushes cymbal, tom-tom and snare. The song's sad, incessant refrain creates a hypnotic effect -- Low's calling card.

At the Aladdin, the band threatened the laws of physics ever further by turning a version of the lugubrious "Embrace" even one notch slower than the recorded rendition.

Neither Low nor Cohen, of course, is first to challenge the edges of volume and tempo -- Miles Davis, Shirley Horn, Andy Bey and Cowboy Junkies are among the countless.

But Low's push toward the outskirts of pop is relentless -- and making inroads.

Last December, those marketing wizards at the Gap pushed Low right through television screens and into your living room by grafting the band's molasses-in-January reading of "Little Drummer Boy" onto a fashion-model ode to holiday spending. Hey, even a fringe band's gotta eat.

Nevertheless, the band's response to a seemingly unexpected second curtain call at the Aladdin was to fumble for a final song -- allowing suggestions to rain down from the medium-sized crowd. Until a voice yelled: "Do the Gap song!"

Husband and wife -- proud new parents -- cringed. "Ouch," smiled Sparhawk, unable to resist a last blast of irony. "That really hurts."

E-mail Mark at andersonenterprises@hotmail.com, and visit prior editions of tripewriter.

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