December 1, 2004

Various Artists
We Could Live in Hope: A Tribute to Low
Fractured Discs

After ten brooding, influential years, Low seem about as ripe for tribute as any other working band out there. But instead of a career-spanning homage, Fractured Discs have made the rather brazen choice of limiting the selected artists' song choices to songs from Low's debut, 1994's I Could Live in Hope. The approach might strike some listeners as awkward and inhibiting, especially considering the general consensus that Low topped their debut with more richly layered later works like The Curtain Hits the Cast and Things We Lost in the Fire. But speaking as a guy who recognizes the dubious value of any tribute album, I appreciate the conceit. The track-for-track recasting makes it something different than the "waiting to hear your favorites" listening experience of most tributes. It's also poignant, as Low readies their "aggressive" seventh full-length, to pay gratitude for the slow, aching sounds that initially seduced listeners and fans, including those heard here.

Although it wasn't the first album to dabble in what would soon become known as slowcore, I Could Live in Hope's ice-melt pace and sparse arrangements aptly crystallized the genre. The one-word song titles emphasized the band's reliance on musical mood and atmosphere over lyrics and technical trickery. As it goes with all tribute albums, the artists here had to choose between respectful, slightly tweaked mimicry or reinvention. Most chose the former, some chose the latter, and all generally succeeded at making songs that have distinct worth beyond their association with the originals.

Of the straighter readings, Pale Horse and Rider's "Fear" is a clear standout. If you don't know, that's Jon de Rosa from Aarktica's folksy project, whose (Alan Sparhawk-produced) albums I've found somewhat middling -- but "Fear" is a bullseye (though I'm a sucker for pedal steel, which Gerald Menke drips on beautifully here). A Northern Chorus's "Slide" is the disc's most heart-snappingly gorgeous cut, as they've made the somewhat snarky choice of playing it even slower, unfathomable as that might sound. The song is an ephemeral watercolor full of long reverbed guitars, hushed female/male vocals and blankets of violin; this "Slide" nails everything that we love about Low, and comes as close to out-Lowing them as anything else here, save maybe Jessica Bailiff's mesmerizing "Down".

Old reliable Mark Kozelek turns in a sturdy version of "Lazy". Since anything Koz touches becomes instantly his own (AC/DC, anyone?), it's no shock that his country-tinged fingerpicking and heartfelt rendering of lyrics like "there's not enough for two / Sarah, you're lazy" makes perfect sense.

His Name is Alive's take on the old singalong "Sunshine" is the disc's most radical departure from Low's "original". This radiant retelling, all violin, cymbal taps, bells and sparse guitars, is all about long waves of atmosphere, reshooting the original black and white in vivid Technicolor.

We Could Live in Hope is a worthy addition to the Low discographical galaxy, already swollen with multiple live and rarities collections. Low completism continues to grow more expensive, but even listeners with just a few of their albums will find much to appreciate on this gushing homage to their debut.

-- Justin Stewart

this review is/was online at Splendid
and is available here for archival use only