Spare Change

For the first time during a half-hour-plus telephone conversation, Alan Sparhawk really laughs. Not that the guitarist-singer for the minimalist avant-rock trio Low is humorless or anything. Rather, it's just that he usually punctuates his measured comments about his music, his band, and his take on the record biz with wry asides and occasional drollery. But now he's consumed in a mini tempest of laughter, prompted by his acknowledgment of his guilty-pleasure listening habits. "I'm a fan of some really embarrassing rock, believe me," he admits. "I like AC/DC's Back in Black. And then there's the really embarrassing stuff, like I think Alice in Chains's Dirt was an amazing record, even though it's probably the most unhip thing to say at this time in rock history. I thought it had a lot of soul to it. We probably would surprise people with how much loud stuff we listen to."

No kidding. Over the course of four years, three full-length albums, and two EPs, including last year's Songs for a Dead Pilot, Low -- Sparhawk (29 years old), percussionist-singer Mimi Parker (age 30), bassist Zak Sally (age 26) -- has established itself as pop iconoclasts, the advance guard for a quiet, slow, intense, barely there sound that both adheres to and subverts the notion of the song. A sound that respects and prizes the spaces between notes as much as the notes themselves. A sound that could not be further removed from the power-chord blare of AC/DC or the overamped churn of Alice in Chains. For instance, the six-cut Songs for a Dead Pilot, released on the Chicago-based indie imprint Kranky, features the thirteen-plus-minutes "Born by the Wires," a glacially paced exploration of aural textures that finds Sparhawk out front languorously scraping and strumming his guitar as he sings. About one-third of the way through, he dumps the vocals and, unaccompanied by his bandmates, "plays," if you call it that, more than four minutes of precisely spaced, highly reverberated guitar whangs, much as if he were a math-challenged bell ringer sounding, oh, eighteen o'clock. It could be the wake-up call that signifies the end of the world, with Sparhawk's guitar chords hanging palpably in the air, humming and rattling. The band finishes the track with Sparhawk coaxing subtly modulated tones from his guitar, augmented by a butterfly's kiss of Parker's cymbals and Sally's bass. Absolutely compelling, despite its completely unconventional structure.

Elsewhere on the EP, Low similarly toys with sonic atmospherics, notably on the opening cut, "Will the Night," which, with its tonal shifts in guitar, keyboards, and massed voices, sounds like a field recording from another planet, or perhaps a hidden-microphone recording of Heaven's waiting lounge. And on "Be There," the record's most gripping song, the band conjures a nightmare soundscape reminiscent of the score David Lynch co-wrote (with Alan R. Splet) for his 1978 film Eraserhead: an industrial throb like the underwater pounding of an immense ship's engines, one-note keyboards, tape crackle and hiss, and whispered vocals by Sparhawk and Parker. (The Eraserhead comparison gains even more heft when you toss in the sound of a crying baby -- a motif that seeps in and out of the Lynch soundtrack -- heard at the end of Pilot's "Condescend.") The closest the group comes to what can be characterized as a linear, "normal" song occurs during the opening minute and a half of the final cut, "Hey Chicago," whose detectable melody line, sung by Sparhawk and Parker, eventually gives way to what sounds like the desolate blowing of the solar wind.

Recorded in the spring and summer of 1997 on an eight-track machine in the basement studio of Sparhawk and Parker's house in Duluth, Minnesota (they're married), Songs for a Dead Pilot not only marks the first time Low has cut a record of significant length at home and produced it themselves, but it also introduces a new instrumental element -- strings -- to the band's signature frugal mix. Their previous three CDs and one EP -- all released on Vernon Yard, a subsidiary of the major label Virgin -- were done in larger, considerably more sophisticated studios, with big-name (well, big-name in indiedom, anyway) producers Mark Kramer (1994's I Could Live in Hope), Steve Albini (1995's Transmission EP, with Kramer), and Steve Fisk (1996's The Curtain Hits the Cast) presiding.

"Before it was always very much like, gear up, learn the songs, and practice, and then go in and spend a week -- eight or ten hours a day -- intensively recording and mixing," Sparhawk explains. "Whereas this [Songs for a Dead Pilot] was like, we came in, sat down, and tried to figure out what we wanted to do, string some wires, try some stuff, and if things weren't flying that day, we'd just go home." Meaning Sparhawk and Parker merely trudged upstairs. "It didn't so much make us lazy as much as that we were able to think about things differently. There were a couple of songs that we did in a completely different way, and then the next time round we said, 'Let's have Mims [Mimi] hit the washing machine on the side.' And we wound up with things that we thought were better, and not the thing we would have thought of first." That washing machine bit, by the way, consisted of sticking a microphone inside the appliance and having Parker whack its side with a mallet -- the experiment produced the aforementioned industrial throb heard on "Be There."

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