For your consideration, a two step formula for judging art: 1. Identify what the artist attempted to accomplish 2. Assess whether the artist accomplished it.
Low is never as monolithic as you remember them being. One word summaries (slowcore) hide the most important and interesting part of Low–their focus on relationship. Dynamics are Low’s secret: within a harmony, a song, an album, and increasingly, a discography. Like the Beatles, like Nirvana, revisiting the back catalog is always a pleasant surprise because the precious space we have in our brains to categorize popular music doesn’t let us retain the exceptions to our heuristics. And it’s the exceptions that make those bands stand the test of time.
So C’mon isn’t exactly a curveball, except that it doesn’t match what you thought you remembered about Low. This time, though, Low have been open about flexing their sound to see if there is an untapped Low fanbase out there. Guest spots by musicians normally consorting with Wilco and Trans-Siberian Orchestra are presumably part of this gambit. Even if Alan Sparhawk has mixed feelings about reaching out to new fans (in a recent interview, he said “We look too weird, and the music’s a little too off, and we don’t play well enough to be famous”) it’s clear that the album reaches to new folks a little more than normal. Is it successful? To find out, this old Low fan* will interview a non-Low fan who made C’mon his first Low purchase. Did they accomplish what they (perhaps reluctantly) set out to do? To find out, I’m going to get all Don Draper up in here. Ya heard.
First, an introduction from test market subject 1, aka Th.:
I first became fully aware of Low from William Morris’s Motley Vision posts, but I’ve always felt that I must have been aware of them before. But maybe it’s just the mass of monosyllabic L-word bands from the nineties that makes me feel that way (Lush, Live, Lull, Luxt . . . ). Between William’s boosterism and Linescratchers’s love-Low policy, I developed a strong curiosity and nearly bought an album many times, but I never knew where to start listening and I never ran across an album that was cheap enough (say, four dollars), that I would just buy it without caring whether or not it was the right album. But I listened to some song clips on Amazon and so forth and never really felt I knew enough to say what I thought.
Then, as part of promoting Low’s new album, I heard a song then the entire album. And then I listened to the entire album again and again. Then, two hours before the release date, Amazon mp3 put it up for $3.99 and I bought it. I’ve since had it going quite a bit, either alone or as part of a mix running off my laptop and my wife has grown tired of Low. (Worth noting: many of my wife’s favorites she hated until I played them often enough, cf Neko Case, Regina Spekor for recent examples.) In short, I like it.
After hearing about Low for a while, what surprised you about actually hearing them?
To paraphrase you, that they’re not as monolithic as I’d imagined them being. I thought they would be a backfed Philip Glass. But they weren’t even as slow as P.J. Harvey’s To Bring You My Love. And since I like that, liking Low wasn’t that hard. Maybe I was just well prepared.
Perhaps this is mostly because I think of Low as A Nineties Band I Somehow Missed, but I keep I keep comparing them to James (kinda similar but much crunchier) and Grant Lee Buffalo. Both of those comparisons are, to me anyway, high praise.
There is a variety of sounds and styles on C’mon. Which appeal to you most? least?
I got to admit: I liked what I heard, but I think it’s a stretch to claim it shows a great deal of variety. On first listen through, I couldn’t even tell the songs apart. It took time for their individual personalities to come through. Now I find myself singing “Witches” and “Especially Me” and “$20” and “Nothing But Heart” which should be proof enough I’ve cracked the code. But I will admit that (as per long-standing quirk), my ears perk up whenever Mimi starts singing.
Which of these songs can you imagine hearing on the radio or TV, if any?
I’m in the Bay Area, so forgive my regionalism, but I don’t see Live 105 playing them, but KFOG? You bet. The music has some potential for broad appeal, but it will take a few plays and your more short-attention-span radio (read: nearly all radio) isn’t likely to give it sufficient spins.As for tv, who knows. I can definitely see it as background for some show, but that’s hard to predict. I don’t see Glee covering them, though, if you’re looking for our next “Animal.”
Aside from their marriage and mental health, the most common personal topic for articles to mention is their religion. If you didn’t already know, would you have been surprised to learn they are Mormon after hearing C’mon? Does any part of the album seem distinctively LDS to you? Would you recommend this album to LDS friends or family?
Surprised? No. I don’t see anything to make me surprised that they’re Mormon. And, one of my flaws as a listener, I’m terrible at deciphering lyrics. In ten years I may finally figure out what these songs are about. Ask me then if it’s “distinctively LDS”. As for recommending the album, absolutely. Not to a large number of people, but I’ve been plugging it on Twitter since the full album was on NPR.
It holds together as an album for me — it seems very cohesive. Which is why I had a hard time answering your “variety of sounds and styles” question.
Ah. Heh heh. Well. I suppose I should just come clear here and admit I rarely go see music live. In terms of Linescratchers I’ve seen Ryan Shupe (and Cherie Call, who opened). I’ve seen They Might Be Giants (a pre-treadmill OK Go opened; I’m still waiting for them to release that train song), Tori Amos thrice (opened by, in order, Howie Day, Rufus Wainwright, One Eskimo) (note: I like Tori fine, but three times = my wife), and, um. Hmm. That might be it. Now that I’m home teaching Earl I’ll probably go see Lime Colony, but I don’t really see a lot of live music. But sure: I’d “like” to see them live.
I’ll keep looking for those other albums cheap. I’m ready to hear more. And I dug the free track from their Christmas album that Amazon gave me. I may well buy that come November.
*I wrote a review focused on my own thoughts about the accessibility of the album, but I think it might a little redundant given the many professional reviews already available and the track by track commentary by the man himself. But here it is anyway, for those who are interested.
Every time a favorite band releases a new album, there’s a rise in anxiety among music snobs/aficionados and it’s not all positive vibes and release parties. The question hangs: Is this the one where they’re going to sell [us] out?** Each of us has been burned before. In the US, being a niche band with niche fans for decades is rarely good enough for major labels (or even the bigger indies.) At some point, the lovable tribe of misfits isn’t enough and your heroes reach for the stars. So if you’re a Low fan and you’ve haven’t heard C’mon yet, I’ll get to the point quickly: No, this isn’t the one. If the rawk of The Great Destroyer didn’t shake you, and the skeletal tin beats of Drums and Guns didn’t shake you, C’mon isn’t going to come close to losing you. In fact, some Drums and Guns-era refugees could be won back here. (If you’re still pining for “old Low” you’ll probably enjoy “Majesty/Magic” and “Done,” which would have been at home on a ’90s album.)
But all the talk about reaching out and accessibility and so forth wasn’t just talk. It is unmistakably Low, but the lead track, lead single, lead video “Try to Sleep” is a pretty conventional pop song. That said, some seriously Avant-garde production and composition has been sneaking into the pop world, so I’m not even sure what conventional pop means right now. [Have you ever listened, really listened, to “Single Ladies,” for example? That is a deeply weird tune! In a pop world where that song, “Are You That Somebody” and “Drop It Like It’s Hot” can become huge smash hits, you’re going to be hard pressed to find a common music thread in the most popular hits of the age. What I’m saying is, why couldn’t a minimalist, minor-key tune like “Especially Me” be on the radio? I pity the fools who try to make sense of and write about pop music for a living.]
There is one empirical measure of the relatively pop-friendliness of C’mon, and that’s the length of the songs. There are just three out of the ten tracks that clock in over 5 minutes, and one of those just barely. This matters for a band who once built songs and albums rather than wrote them. Constructing a mood isn’t about getting it done, it’s about getting it right, and getting it right takes time. Low does get it right when they take the time and the 8:19 of Nothing But Heart is exactly how much time they needed to do it right. “Majesty/Magic,” on the other hand, feels like it’s going to be an anthem but ends before four and a half minutes roll around.
The guest appearances don’t feel invasive, but I wouldn’t say that the album flows. It’s like a tour through pleasant place that’s a little more fun than you expected it to be. Ooh xylophone! Hey, plucky banjos! Ooh Nels Cline and John Stamos! There are no cringey mis-steps (ahem, Canada) and there are at least three songs I’d consider putting on a definitive Low mix (I love “$20” since first hearing it live in a church in Chicago, plus “Try to Sleep” and “Nothing But Heart”) There are a few lingering questions: What’s up with the end of “$20”? Why does Alan have something against Al Green wannabes? Is the Obladi Oblada cadence in “Something’s Turning Over” a rip-off, tribute, or completely in my head?
While I don’t expect to frame it and put it up on my wall, C’mon is an excellent collection of songs, and certainly the best release I expect to buy this year.