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Low On Vernon Yard: How The Indie Trio Introduced Their Subversive Sound

The Midwestern trio began life as a reaction to an oversaturation of aggressive, distorted rock, and instead of adding their own voice to the din, they turned it down instead.

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Low Vernon Yard records
Photo: Stefan M. Prager/Redferns

While most bands in the 90s seemingly competed to build the loudest angst-delivery system, Duluth, Minnesota’s Low chose a different path. The Midwestern trio began life as a reaction to an oversaturation of aggressive, distorted rock, and instead of adding their own voice to the din, they turned it down instead, making music that emphasized a slower pace, softer volumes, and an embrace of open space.

Inspired by “Eno, Joy Division and the boredom of living in Duluth,” as they told Billboard in 1995, vocalist/guitarist Alan Sparhawk, drummer Mimi Parker, and bassist John Nichols – the latter of whom was replaced after one album by Zak Sally – helped to popularize the “slowcore” sound, crafting hypnotic lullabies that provided a meditative respite from an ever-present mainstream cacophony.

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The novelty and innovation of Low made them an attractive proposition for labels seeking to offer something different. In 1994, with the help of producer Mark Kramer, Low found a home for their debut album on Vernon Yard, an independently run offshoot of Virgin Records, which had previously released records by up-and-coming Britpop groups such as The Auteurs and The Verve. In three years’ time, the band released three albums for the short-lived label – I Could Live In Hope, Long Division and The Curtain Hits The Cast.

I Could Live In Hope (1994)

To capture the hushed, atmospheric sound that Low had envisioned for their debut album, they sought out famed producer Mark Kramer, who had previously worked with indie rockers Galaxie 500. The band reportedly sent Kramer a cassette in the mail, along with a simple message, “We are Low. We hope you like our songs,” written on a napkin. Within 30 minutes of putting the tape in his Walkman, Kramer was intent on bringing them into the studio.

Though it took a couple of days for the band to get comfortable in the studio – Kramer even remarked that they barely said anything to each other during the first day of tracking – the end result was a record the producer claimed was one of the best things he’d ever recorded. It’s easy to see why; I Could Live in Hope is a “haunted, ethereal dream space where everything is beautiful and nothing is wrong with the world,” as Kramer described it to The Quietus, evoking mid-period Velvet Underground with more textural darkness. On gloomy highlights such as “Cut,” the album feels spiritually connected to skeletal post-punk albums like The Cure’s Faith, harboring a similarly eerie atmosphere.

While the songs on I Could Live In Hope are all cut from a similar cloth, created with the same instrumental setup, there’s a great deal of depth and versatility to the songs, from the expansive stillness of “Lullaby” to the gothic shimmer of “Drag.” Moments like the beginning of opening track “Words,” where the rhythm section provides a hypnotic stillness for Sparhawk’s guitar to glide along, and the watery shimmer of guitar licks on “Lazy” against a repetitive, droning bassline reveal a band embracing an intimacy beyond the theater of rock performance.

“At first we just wanted to annoy people by giving them all this tension and not giving them any release,” Sparhawk told Billboard. “But a few songs in, we realized we were actually having fun with it.”

Long Division (1995)

I Could Live in Hope proved more successful than the band had initially imagined, maintaining steady sales following its 1994 release and becoming a college radio favorite that year. Low felt a sense of urgency to get back into the studio with Kramer to record a follow-up. What followed was 1995’s Long Division, a slow album the group made remarkably quickly. Still riding the period of inspiration that yielded their debut, the group spent two days in the studio capturing 12 gloomy, gorgeous dirges on tape. “We were lucky to get in there quickly and cut it while we were still discovering the band,” Sparhawk told Vice. “We were really happy with how the first record sounded, so we were just plugging in and playing the new tunes.”

Not so much a continuation of the sound of I Could Live in Hope as a pure distillation of the band’s most basic elements, Long Division is more stark and wintry. Mimi Parker’s brushed snare seems to mimic the sound of footsteps on fresh snow, and the trio – which now included Zak Sally on bass – sounds even more comfortable letting each note ring out into open space.

Though it was their first album to yield a proper single – the delicate lullaby “Shame” – its compositions remained idiosyncratic and insular. Songs such as the spectral “Alone” and tense brooder “Turn” sound best well after midnight, while the hazy “Below & Above” and the faint glow of “Caroline” feel most natural just as the sun begins to rise.

The Curtain Hits the Cast (1996)

Low closed out their brief tenure on Vernon Yard with The Curtain Hits the Cast, an album that found the group taking greater risks and exploring more ambitious ideas without quickening the pace of the songs. Before entering the studio with producer Steve Fisk, the band had floated the possibility of adding keyboards to their repertoire. Fisk ended up bringing a half-dozen vintage keyboards and organs into the studio for the sessions. In discussing the sessions with Vice, Sparhawk said, “Kramer was cool, but he had his way of doing things, whereas Fisk was like, ‘What can we do in the studio now? What can we add?’”

There’s a warm glow that permeates The Curtain Hits the Cast, as well as a greater emphasis on texture. Opening track “Anon” is backed by a faint whirr reminiscent of the eerie sound design of Twin Peaks, while the subtly building drone and reverb on “Coattails” make the band’s music sound grand and cinematic. The album also saw the trio stretching the limits of their songwriting on the 14-minute closing track “Do You Know How to Waltz?” Though the group takes their time, the song has an internal momentum, headed toward something grander, something more immersive. The way its echoing waves of sound grow and multiply feel leagues apart from the stark, chilling tracks of their debut album.

Before Low’s time on Vernon Yard came to an end, they issued one more release, 1998’s owL Remix. Though they were initially resistant to the idea of issuing a remix album, the project yielded some unexpected, compelling results. Techno producer Porter Ricks transformed “Down” into a static-ridden ambient meditation, Neotropic gave “Do You Know How to Waltz?” a punchy IDM remix, and Tranquility Bass even managed to make a dance remix out of “Over the Ocean.”

The EP acted as a dividing line between eras in Low’s career, but it coincidentally also ended up being the final proper Vernon Yard release, with other artists like The Verve moving over to Virgin and Acetone to Vapor.

Low’s story has continued for two decades since their brief but prolific first few years, but these three albums helped to establish them as one of the most innovative and essential voices in indie rock.

“Bob
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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Alex Hawkins

    December 3, 2020 at 10:36 pm

    Great writeup of 3 albums that deserve far better than to be terminally out of print and lying fallow in the vaults of a faceless conglomerate such as UMG.

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