There’s never been another band like Low, and there will likely never be another band quite like them either. The Duluth, Minnesota trio have slowly and subtly reshaped experimental rock music over three decades, first through music that left open wide planes of open space between their low BPM rhythmic crawl, and later through a more abrasive take on ambient pop, employing noise and heaviness while remaining committed to a sound that never leaned heavy on obvious rock music tropes. Just as Low seemed to establish a signature sound, they reshaped it and pulled it apart, revealing possibilities in rock music that previously didn’t seem possible—they could be heavier than doom metal even when making music that felt whisper quiet.
Formed by musicians and married couple Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker in the early ’90s, Low made music built on harmony and patient chemistry. Sparhawk and Parker shared vocal duties, taking turns helming their songs but just as often singing in harmony, their musical chemistry often seemingly reflecting a kind of warm intimacy that came from two artists who were partners outside of the band as well. Likewise, Parker’s rhythms—often played with brushes or mallets, never giving into flashy rock cliché—were part of the band’s signature sound; once you heard the soft crash of her brushes against a snare, you knew you were hearing Low. The death of Parker this past weekend after a two-year battle with cancer means the loss of a unique voice and musician in a musical space that was all their own, a sound that leaves a massive influence but can’t be replicated.
Here are five songs that showcase Parker’s range in helping to shape the sound of Low’s music.
from Long Division
Low’s second album Long Division stripped an already stark and graceful approach down to something even more bare, at times barely there. “Shame” is among the most delicate of these songs, wherein the arrangement of Alan Sparhawk’s gentle guitar arpeggios occupy only a small piece of the space therein, a wide open plain of ambient pop that seems to operate as if the melody and Parker’s sparse, brushed snare only happen to occur simultaneously as if by chance. It’s Parker’s soothing voice that provides the adhesive that ties everything together, the way phrases like “The harm” or “pours down” are sustained like bowed strings. This was the first Low song I had ever heard, and though what immediately stood out were the elements of rock music that the group deliberately removed (distortion, uptempo rhythms), its sound was unforgettable.
“Just Like Christmas” (1999)
In 1999 Low released an EP of Christmas songs that’s become something of an enduring staple of the holidays (in cooler households, anyhow), with their take on “The Little Drummer Boy” ending up in a commercial for The Gap. But their original, “Just Like Christmas,” isn’t so much a Christmas carol as a bittersweet reminiscence of being on tour in Scandinavia in the middle of a snowstorm, with Parker delivering a mellifluous reflection on the wintry blanket outside their windows.
“Cue the Strings” (2005)
From The Great Destroyer
One of the uniquely moving aspects of Low’s music is not simply the songwriting nor the performances, but the way in which its two founders—Parker and Sparhawk, also a married couple—created such beautifully harmonic music together. “Cue the Strings” opens with just Sparhawk’s vocals, but it’s not really until Parker lends her harmonies to the song that it feels complete, feels whole. Its framework is relatively simple, just two voices intertwined around a bed of Mellotron, but the overall effect is both stunningly maximalist and emotionally affecting in ways that aren’t easy to comprehend until you’ve heard it yourself.
“Just Make It Stop” (2013)
From The Invisible Way
A more conventional country-rock song among Low’s evolving, often experimental repertoire, The Invisible Way standout “Just Make It Stop” finds Parker giving one of her more emotionally tense vocal performances against a persistent, pounding piano and her own driving rhythm. Though it’s among the band’s more direct, even catchy songs, there’s a gently frayed edge to every line she sings, adding even more weight behind phrases like “If I could make it stop/Breaking my heart/Get out of the way.” It’s both heart-wrenching and warmly immediate—a delicate balance that’s tricky to pull off, but Parker and company somehow make it feel effortless.
From HEY WHAT
Throughout most of their career, Low has operated as a trio, but last year’s HEY WHAT was made as the duo of Sparhawk and Parker, though one of the most conspicuously absent elements in many of its songs was her drums. (Though they return for a highly satisfying climax on “The Price You Pay (It Must Be Wearing Off)”.) Yet the band’s experimental sensibility found them taking on some interesting textural contrasts, most dramatically on “More,” on which Parker’s gorgeously melodic vocal lead is juxtaposed against some of the gnarliest sounds Sparhawk has ever created with his guitar. It’s both jarring and mesmerizing, genuine beauty against what feels like chaos.
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.