General 7-19-2004

Temporary Relief, No Permanent Satisfaction: Low

Chris Godsey reviews Low's "A Lifetime of Temporary Relief: 10 Years of B-Sides and Rarities," on Chairkickers Union. What is the relation of a listener to the figment of imagination that is a band?

Low's box set

Since 1994, Low albums and live shows have sustained an understated mantra, only flirting with physical and emotional release. The Duluth band’s new boxed set, “A Lifetime of Temporary Relief: 10 Years of B-Sides and Rarities,” released July 20, maintains that bittersweet tension. It shows a lot and tells very little, tempting listeners toward the futile task of interpretation.

Low’s Web site,, says, “At long last, an exhaustive compilation of B-Sides, rarities, outtakes and demos from the past 10 years of Low’s career. Featuring more than 53 songs assembled by the band, this box set contains 3 audio discs and 1 DVD. A Lifetime of Temporary Relief includes Low’s first bedroom recordings (1993), all the way through to vinyl-only tracks from their recent CD, Trust (2002). Combined with a DVD that includes 11 Low videos, live footage and a series of documentaries, along with notes and images in a 32-page booklet compiled by the band, this box set truly encapsulates all that is Low.

“From quiet to loud, from Jandek to Journey, from subterranean to sublime, it’s 10 years of Low all in one beautiful package.”

That’s Jandek, as in (according to writer Douglas Wolk) “the longest-running, weirdest, loneliest enigma in popular music,” and Journey, as in the epitome of sentimental ‘70s and ‘80s rock power ballads. Low’s covers of Jandek’s “Carnival Queen” and Journey’s “Open Arms” (irony? tribute?) are included, along with covers of songs by the Beatles, Soul Coughing, the Smiths, Tom T. Hall, the Bee Gees, Spaceman 3, Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys and, if you can find them: some raw live recordings of Low covering themselves a la the Misfits; about two seconds of Alan Sparhawk, on stage in Paris, picking the opening guitar lick to Lynrd Skynrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama”; and a 16-minute video that both begs and negates the question, “Why?”

Low fanatics may already own these cover tunes, the rare singles and their b-sides, songs from obscure compilations, and the videos. Still, the set is undeniably valuable as historical, pop-cultural document. Even music fans who don’t dig Low might appreciate how the band’s slow, quiet style was actually a punk-influenced attack on grandiose early-1990s grunge and hard rock cliches. Instead of conforming to trite aural and visual bombast, Low swallowed their music’s inherent aggression, creating a sound that effectively disguises brutality as softness. Some audiences got angry about not being rocked in expected ways. Some audiences, like those Low faced while opening for Radiohead last October at Madison Square Garden, still do.

Ten years, one Gap television commercial, and a subtle sort of worldwide fame later, Low’s punk pedigree is still intact. The band has used its ostensibly limited “slow, quiet” aesthetic to constantly defy convention; to challenge expectations of what its own records should sound like; and to progress from antagonistic novelty act to masters of a sub-genre. That progression and the intelligence (and work) it requires is palpable throughout A Lifetime….

Then again, maybe Low’s punk legacy is solidified by the volumes of pretentious, wanna-be hipster prose like this review, all the stuff at the “reading” section of, and a breathless Low chat group, that try to explain and define and interpret the band. Maybe Low just makes good music, slowly and quietly, and all this blah blah blah is their snotty punk joke on people who need definitions to feel comfortable and smart.

Trying to define Low and its music really is stupid. That could be why Sparhawk, drummer and singer Mimi Parker, and bassist Zak Sally released such a deluge of audio and video, but provided only cursory notes in the box set’s booklet: they understand the value of letting the material create its own, ever-shifting, meaning.

The note for “Kindly Blessed,” for example, reads, “Secretly Canadian records asked if we could do an a capella song for a compilation. Mimi wrote this in 5 minutes while washing the dishes.” That domestic detail is perfectly placed—we can imagine Parker at the sink, but unless, maybe even if, we’ve been in the same kitchen, we all conjure up a different scene. Where was Sparhawk? Sitting at the table, finding notes on an acoustic guitar, or plinking an unplugged electric? Did Parker sing softly and think to herself, or out loud, editing vocally as she progressed?

Every song’s process, meaning, and story could be explained in exhaustive detail—some descriptions create desperate desire for more–but the mystery behind them maintains interest, while explanation would inevitably break the tension and end in disappointment.

The same cryptic principle is at work in Mark Gartman’s 17-minute film “The Making of Trust.” As it opens, rehearsal of “La La Song” devolves into a debate over whether Parker should play sixteenth notes in the song. She and Sally say no; Sparhawk says yes. On the album version, she doesn’t. Later, there’s Sparhawk with a microphone, hunched alone in a room of the Sacred Heart Music Center. He’s singing the opening lines to “John Prine,” maybe the album’s most dismal song, but he just looks like a guy in a black hooded sweatshirt singing. No facial contortions, no sweating blood—not much expression of any kind, actually. Soon the formless film is over, and based on what’s shown, it’s obvious there’s a lot more footage, somewhere, that Low fans would find fascinating in its minutiae.

Again, the joke could be on those of us who ache for more; we’re agog at Low’s creative process…but it just looks like three people hanging out playing music. Is it? Or is it truly something beyond that, and we’re justified in valuing the precious glimpse we’ve gotten, and in almost painfully desiring more? What is it we want? Is it available to us?

So much visceral audio and video require a serious physical and emotional commitment. It’s tough to digest the entire set at once, but the roughly chronological song organization provides a comfortable ebb and flow of tempo and tone. Once your brain has slowed into the Low zone, the band’s consistency becomes stunning, then almost overwhelming, by degrees. The first song on the first disc, a demo for “Lullaby,” which came out on Low’s 1994 debut I Could Live in Hope, shows exactly why the tape they sent to Vernon Yard Recordings got almost immediate attention. Everything from there till a version of “Shots and Ladders,” the last song on Trust and on the set’s last disc, illustrates how much possibility Low has created.

Few box sets require as much attention—or inspire as much longing–as this one. Low’s appeal is based on that tension. In another 10 years, we’ll want to know even more, and the arm’s length keeping us from that knowledge will be just as firm.