Monday, June 20, 2011

Essay: Low In The 00's Pt. 2

This is the second in an essay series on Low's albums from Trust to Drums and Guns. I'll be posting the final entry on the latter in a few days, and soon after, a review of the band's new album, C'mon. But for today, we look at...

The Great Destroyer

During the three year break from Trust to The Great Destroyer, Low changed record labels, signing on with indie powerhouse Sub Pop as well as putting out the vault clearing b-sides and rarities collection A Lifetime Of Temporary Relief. In 2003 there were rumors about longtime bassist Zak Sally leaving the band, which he eventually did in October of 2005. So, if it could be argued that Low had half-heartedly made some changes on Trust, this new era saw them making good on those unstated promises/threats. Whether or not you view Trust as the start of this new era or a sort of unintentional send-off to their old sound, something fundamental about Low's approach needed to change for them to continue as vital artists instead of becoming the kind of band only diehard fans could love, consistent but never surprising. At a certain point a band has to justify their continued existence with something, well, new and different, otherwise they're just punching a clock and creating art not out of inspiration but out of habit. Or to pay the bills.

Judging by the mixed reception the sudden changes of The Great Destroyer received, it's clear that some were unwilling to enjoy the music on its own merits, lashing out in particular at new producer Dave Fridmann. Bringing him in was just the cherry on top of the drastic differences the band had made; The Great Destroyer could correctly but lazily be considered their rock album. At any rate, Fridmann can be an easy target for derision because he has a profound effect on the bands he works with. His distinctive style, generally lush and often weird/experimental, as well as with a super-loud/distorted production, works well on most of his projects. It also means that he becomes a de-facto new member when he mans the boards for a band. This works extremely well when established groups need a new direction. Sleater-Kinney's The Woods and The Flaming Lips's Embryonic would be lesser records without him. When he works with bands who don't need such tinkering or aren't sympathetic to his style, however, the results are often terrible. To be fair to him, it's just as much the fault of bands like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! and Tapes 'N Tapes for coming to the studio with mediocre songs which no amount of production magic could salvage. Still, I think it's undeniable that the whole “it always sounds like someone is playing it through a guitar amplifier with overdrive and gain cranked up” aspect of those albums doesn't help.

As it turned out, The Great Destroyer is a more successful attempt to both progress and remake the band's sound than the preceding Trust, thanks partially to Fridmann's production. The slow and quiet moments still have the magical intimacy which inspired the trend of fans sitting down during Low concerts. On this record, though, they're the pleasant valleys between the brighter, more direct, and more energetic songs and sections of songs. 'Just Stand Back' is a huge departure for Low, effectively sounding like they've become a different band (and they had), all jangly guitar-pop with a much meatier backbone to all the instruments. Speaking of, it finally sounds like Mimi Parker discovered the joy of using a full drum kit more often, something immediately apparent on album opener 'Monkey', her pounding tom-toms ushered in by an ominous synthesizer and acoustic guitar strums.

'On The Edge Of' demonstrates one of the fundamental misunderstandings most people still have about Low, which is that they're only humorless, sexless aesthetes who play slow, quiet, boring music. Well, they do have a sense of humor—how else to explain their genuine love for the Misfits, down to performing some Misfits covers while dressed as the band, putting some of the results as hidden tracks on the A Lifetime Of Temporary Relief box set? Anyway, the hard rocking guitar and drums of this track speak to both the band's classic rock love as well as Sparhawk's numerous obscure side projects, including the bluesy Black Eyed Snakes and Retribution Gospel Choir, whose 2008 album sounds a lot like the kind of alternative-rock-with-a-capital-R which Low stood in defiance of, if not opposition to, during the 90s and early 00s. Moreover, one of The Great Destroyer's best and most memorable moments is the raucous, transformative peak of 'When I Go Deaf.' The band absolutely live up to the album title here by toying with our expectations until the guitar suddenly roars to life after nearly three minutes of acoustic navel-gazing , thereby silencing any doubts as to whether they could effectively subvert their old style.

As for the sexless part? Not all eroticism is physical; the way Parker and Sparhawk's vocals blend together has the familiarity and lack of self-awareness that only intimate lovers or very dear friends can have. But I digress.

Elsewhere on The Great Destroyer, things don't always go so smoothly. 'Step' is a poor attempt to throw in far too many ideas at once, including a sludgy, distorted guitar, buzzing amplifiers, affected vocals during the intro which sound like they come from a bad dance remix, handclaps, distant twinkling piano, and a boringly obvious acoustic and electric guitar breakdown at the end. 'Broadway (So Many People)' has a melody reminiscent of 'Like A Forest', surrounding it with hushed sections that sound like Parker and Sparhawk are singing inside a giant, echoey cathedral. However the actual result ends up being more like a live version of the song, as the band seem to be heading for a fade out but then kick it back in and continue on for two more minutes of formless vocal ahh's and distracting white noise that nearly swallows up the drums and chunky rhythm guitar. Strangest of all is 'Death Of A Salesman', a self-aware acoustic ditty which seems to have wandered in from another album entirely or escaped its more appropriate fate as a b-side. Then there's 'Pissing', which starts out sounding like an old style Low epic, the cymbals, guitar, and vocals building and building toward some peak until it's all sabotaged by out-of-nowhere distortion that makes the guitar howl and feedback. Then the expected peak never arrives. 'Pissing' is all tension and no release, ending abruptly, and is among the handful of missteps on this album that can't be blamed on the production. These don't ruin the record in the least but they do keep it from being the new-and-different Low's first unqualified success.

The Great Destroyer was a revitalized statement of intent for the band even if, in retrospect, it didn't establish what they would sound like for the rest of their career. That said, it did prove Low could still make great music without relying on their old bag of tricks. It may not rank among their best work, though it is arguably their most important release, the point on which their entire discography turns. Like Radiohead's Kid A, it's an essential listen even if you don't end up enjoying it. “Essential” for the band to make so they could redefine themselves and continue on as a still-vital creative entity. But also “essential” as listening for those who wish to understand what the band is about, to smash through some assumptions, and to uncover how they got from Secret Name to C'mon. In that respect, it's still a transitional work, as Trust was, though The Great Destroyer didn't point to the future as much as it hit the reset button to lay the future wide open.

Possessing just as many tracks as but thankfully 12 minutes leaner than Trust, the more I listen to The Great Destroyer the more it strikes me as being a better version of what I think the band secretly wanted to do with that one. I'd go so far as to say that the much touted rock of 'Canada' sounds restrained once you've heard this record. Whether it took more time, a new label, or a different producer, it is their most rocking album and, until C'mon, passed for their most immediately engaging. Much as credit or blame for this was laid at the feet of Dave Fridmann or their jump to one of the biggest indie labels, I'm not sure they deserve much of it. After only two years off and a new bassist, Low would return with the same producer on the same label though with the very different sounding Drums and Guns.

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