By Natalya Jones
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The band's label, Vernon Yard Recordings, dropped Low later that year but released a remix album titled Owl in 1998. As Sparhawk explains, the record was produced "with our approval but not with any of our involvement." Turning Low's majestic hymns into dance trinkets is virtually a thankless task: Bronski Beat's Jimmy Somerville has his way with "Words," spinning it into a confectionary bauble, while Tranquility Bass gussies up "Over the Ocean" with hip-hopperies and horns.
When the band resurfaced on Chicago indie label Krankythat same year with Songs For a Dead Pilot, Low took even more liberties with its formula. Adding judicious strokes of keyboards and strings, the band retained its powerful impact while expanding its palette. "Be There" is as icy as cracked water pipes in December, with an edgy sense of foreboding. Maybe northern Minnesota influences the chilly music and accounts for Low's economy of means? "We grew up there," Sparhawk says. "We don't know any different. But it is a pretty long, gray, brutal winter. We usually get ten days in a row that are 20 below zero."
Secret Name from 1999 (again recorded with Albini) relies on strings for emotional drama once more, with the delicate "Two-Step" and Parker's heartbreaking "Weight of Water" ascending to the top of the band's canon of greats. Last winter Sparhawk and Parker played their trump card: Christmas, a seasonal gift containing faithful takes on "Silent Night" and the like as well as some heartfelt originals. They also dropped their guard, lyrically speaking. Whereas "Two-Step" began with the puzzling line, "And the light burns your skin/In a language you don't understand," the band swung to the opposite direction for Yuletide. "We are musically very naked," Sparhawk explains, "but we aren't really about opening our souls." Until Christmas, that is.
Space Cadette Records
What band but Low could, without even the faintest whiff of irony, title a tune "If You Were Born Today (Song For the Little Baby Jesus)"? Sparhawk envisions the scenario thus: "They'd kill you by age eight/ Never get the chance to say/Joy to the world/ And peace on the earth." Utterly devoid of self-consciousness, the song is moving for believer and heathen alike.
"When the Christmas record came out, that kind of opened the floodgates," Sparhawk admits. "I think a lot of people find it refreshing that we call a spade a spade and say, "We're going to do some religious songs here, and it's because we mean it, you know?'
"Mormons aren't notorious for being fringe artists," Sparhawk continues. "Of course Mick Ronson from the Spiders From Mars was the one I lean toward. I know when I went to [Brigham Young University], I wanted to go see something rebellious and contrary. Unfortunately most people who go out and see shows are trying to get away from the religious part, sad as it is. There's the religious side -- you go to church and everybody's trying to be very proper, clean living and all this stuff -- and then there's the music that you go home and listen to that doesn't have anything to do with the religion. I guess there's some people in the church who are excited about the fact that we're a bridge between those two worlds.
"It's always a struggle to be honest with yourself," he concludes. "But I don't feel like I have to listen to Donny and Marie to be a good Mormon."
Hollis will thank him some day.