SXSW artist preview: Low
The title of Low's upcoming album, "C'mon," due out April 12, is partly a rousing rally cry to fans. But percussionist and vocalist Mimi Parker says it's also a cry of exasperation to newcomers.
"It's like, hey! We've been doing this for a long time. C'mon! Just listen to it. It's not that bad," Parker said in a recent phone interview.
Over nearly two decades and nine albums, the Duluth, Minn., band has garnered acclaim among fans and critics of independent music, but, according to Parker, not huge commercial success.
"We've been able to do this without having an outside job for a few years, so we've been really fortunate," she said. "But we're still just hanging on by a thread at times."
If Low has been overlooked, mischaracterization might be to blame. When Parker and her husband, Alan Sparhawk, started Low in 1993, they played ballads so sparse and painstakingly paced that, the band was hit with a label they still haven't quite shaken -- "slowcore." And although they pair hasn't completely abandoned the dark poetry and stark minimalism at their foundation, they have begun treading louder territory, exploring everything from distorted noise on 2005's "The Great Destroyer" to electronica-infused anti-war tirades on 2007's "Drums and Guns."
"Slowly over the course of the years Alan's been getting louder and louder," Parker said. "I'm not sure if it's because his hearing is impaired, but he will probably argue that point with me. He's just been working out his rock angst."
Still, Low is beginning to make a foray into the mainstream. Last year, self-proclaimed Low fan Robert Plant covered two of the band's songs for his latest album, "Band of Joy," and he received a Grammy nomination for his vocal performance on one of them.
And for "C'mon," Low brought in Matt Beckley, a Hollywood producer who has mixed albums from artists that couldn't be farther from Low's aesthetic, including Britney Spears. Sparhawk enlisted the same producer last year for the second album from his noise rock side project, Retribution Gospel Choir, which gave the album a thundering low-end to back its huge, stadium-worthy distortion.
The sound is just as big on "C'mon," but not quite as loud. The album flows through 10 tracks of warm guitar, swelling harmonies and lilting piano lines. But it's not entirely a return to the basics for the band -- "You See Everything" waltzes through jazzy instrumentation that would have felt at home on a Ben Folds Five album, while "Done" finds Low dabbling in warm, doleful twang for the first time.
The first show on Low's promotional tour for "C'mon" will be the band's SXSW showcase at St. David's Sanctuary, a venue with an atmosphere and acoustics that should perfectly complement Parker and Sparhawk's haunting harmonies.
Parker said the band will likely perform tracks primarily from the new album, but might also throw some curveballs, now that their bassist of only a few years, Steve Garrington, is nearly up to speed on their back-catalog.
"It's more possible now that he's got everything on his iPod," she said.