September 27, 2004

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

Fractured Discs

Before undertaking this review, I made sure to dispose of all the sharp objects in the house and lock up the medicine cabinet. Since it would require repeated listening to Low’s none-more-sadcore debut, 1994’s I Could Live in Hope and this tribute it inspired, it seemed the wise thing to do. Yeah, I’m a pussy, I know. Truth is, though Low’s music can be saturnine almost to the point of self-parody, it’s also riveting, conjuring patient drama out of a few huge chords, bare bones drums, and the plaintive harmonies of husband-and-wife Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker (also including bassist John Nichols, replaced later by Zak Sally). It’s a brave thing to strip all excess from your performance, slow it to a somnambulant pace and then leave it to the windswept loneliness of the music to excite the masses, but Low do it. Long story short: suicide was averted, life reaffirmed.

Long story continued: The twelve bands that tackle the track-by-track cover of Low’s debut do a great job and played a valuable part in staving off self-immolation. Some songs are reimagined, others hew closer to the same aesthetic as the originators. Red House Painter brainchild Mark Kozelek turns the dreamlike “Lazy” into a bluegrassy fingerpicker but his sad voice and the bittersweet melody make it sound like a Duluth, Minnesota high lonesome. Not much of a surprise. If Kozelek can make AC/DC sound poignant, Low wasn’t gonna be a problem.

Los Angeles’ magnificent Idaho turn “Rope” into a loose grooved aqueous lament with the piano flowing like cool, rushing water. It ends a bit too abruptly though, just when it starts to gel. I had hoped that Idaho braintrust Jeff Martin would avoid the piano altogether and revive the feedback soaked wall of sound used on their first two albums, both of which are unequaled not only by their subsequent output but by anyone else for that matter. Any band that can create something as harrowing and unbelievably beautiful as “Here to Go” (from 1993’s Year After Year, and the greatest song of the past eleven years) is worth waiting forever for, and I will. Forgive my digression, but I may not get another chance to prostrate myself before that particular masterpiece.

Getting back to business: where are the stoner bands on this tribute? You mean not one epic-sludge band has a soft spot for Low? The funereal beats, the riffs built for repetition, the otherworldly harmonies—they seem perfectly suited for a punishing treatment. I wouldn’t really want any screaming to replace the vocal magic Low create, but I would’ve thought the Sabbath-worshiping crowd could find something worth paying tribute to in Low’s oeuvre. Something heavy, primal maybe, oddly entrancing—Isis? Neurosis? Bueller?... Bueller?...

Among the more conservative attempts at reinvention are Jessica Bailiff’s foggy “Down”, and Daniel G. Hartman’s relatively straight take on the opener “Words”, both of which still manage to take Low’s aesthetic and inhabit it fully. A noirish, fractured version of “Words” by Spain’s Migala appears later on the disc, the one alteration to the original album’s running order while Canada’s A Northern Chorus actually tries to one up Low by slowing down “Slide” even more. It’s not drastically different but it is still lovely, even airier with gobs of Cocteau Twins guitar echo rippling out to infinity.

Brooklyn’s Pale Horse & Rider almost made me swoon in my pants with their countrified reading of “Fear”. The heartbreaking steel guitar winding throughout is an obvious highlight but so is the subtle shift in mood. Where the original was a little chilly, theirs’ has a warm pulse with a meditative, Byrds-ier chime… Ahhh.

It is refreshing in its way. Low’s music forces you to infuse the spaces between the notes with something other than sound. It has to be something spiritual, if not necessarily hope. Every band on this compilation brings something of their own to animate and haunt these songs, and the songs haunt back, a testament to the skill and sensitivity of the musicians, the compilers and their inspiration.

Dig Low, by proxy through this excellent compilation or directly through their own releases. They’re a magical band and We Could Live in Hope is a wonderful assessment of their appeal.


Reviewed by: Chuck Zak

this review is/was online at Stylus
and is available here for archive use only