Mar 172023

In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!

Low covers

Today we place Low in the spotlight, even if the Duluth-based band has already occupied the spotlight in recent months, and for the worst of reasons: Low’s co-founder Mimi Parker passed away in November 2022, age 55. The tributes and memorials that poured out to Mimi took many beautiful forms, all of them disbelieving and heartbroken. As we sample the amazing music that she and her husband Alan Sparhawk (Low’s other co-founder and the band’s primary songwriter) gave us in their 30-year run as a band, we’ll look at covers by Low and covers of Low, and pay our respects to Mimi along the way.

From its start in 1993, Low defied the basic covenants that indie rock bands abided by. They formed in Duluth, Minnesota–not exactly a bastion of hipness–and they stayed there, never minding the pull of the Seattle/Nashville/Chicago/Austin corridor. They were a married couple with children. Strangest of all, they were Mormons–practicing Mormons.

In their music, too, Low seemed out-of-step with its grungy time. Parker, the drummer, played standing up behind a simple kit–a cymbal and a floor tom–using brushes, not sticks. Guitarist Sparhawk avoided standard tuning, and he rarely took solos. Their songs were glacially-paced minimalist affairs; a soft menacing drone surrounded austere vocal harmonies that could sooth you or spook you in turn.

Low wasn’t a band with a Big Message to get across, or a thirst for attention. In their early days when the crowd talked over them, Low would turn their volume down. They tested its audience’s patience and attention span, forced listeners to look at their own discomfort and need for stimulation–here we are now, entertain us. Mimi recalled hecklers yelling “Heroin!” a lot on their early tours. Despite the barriers to entry Low put in place, a dedicated listenership began to grow beyond the shores of Lake Superior.

In their first decade, the albums came out on relatively obscure indie labels, often with a name producer or engineer attached–Steve Albini, Tchad Blake, and Steve Fisk among them. Their sixth release was of all things a Christmas album; they didn’t do it for the money (Low’s annual Christmas shows are legendary in Duluth) and yet their take on “Little Drummer Boy” got picked up by The Gap for an ad campaign. This afforded Low a chance to hunker down in Duluth and rejuvenate. And to get weirder.

They added more instrumentation, began using the studio itself as a creative tool. Bassist Zak Sally explored the Optigan keyboard more and more. The early 00’s found Low opening for Radiohead and signing with Sub Pop. Their first release on the label, The Great Destroyer, departed from their established aesthetic, but the album got some attention. Robert Plant’s Band of Joy record (2010) featured two songs from The Great Destroyer, and with a whole new audience opened up to Low’s music. On dates with his current project, Saving Grace, Plant covers a third song from that album, “Everybody’s Song.”

Some listeners who respond to Low respond to Low deeply. (Looking at you, Mr Plant.) It’s similar to the way people go deep with Mark Rothko’s paintings, how those defiantly simple canvases bring feelings of transcendence to certain viewers. Those who sense the depths beneath the painted surface experience hope and solace and awe in their presence, and shed tears for reasons they can’t articulate. Low’s singular music has that depth and resonance.

Mimi Parker, rest in peace.

Low –I Started a Joke (Bee Gees cover)

This early Bee Gees hit is a great vehicle for Mimi’s voice, so we’ll start there. If you have heard but never cared for the song, this iteration might convert you. It did me.

Robin Gibb conceived of the song, oddly enough, in a Low sort of way. On a flight to London, he explained, the jet engines “seemed to drone the passenger into a sort of hypnotic trance […]. The droning, after a while, appeared to take the form of a tune, which mysteriously sounded like a church choir.”

Low literally started as a joke, at least as Sparhawk tells it. In a punk band, he mucked around between songs at rehearsals with a monotonous, sluggardly form of music. The thought of subjecting a sweaty mob of punks to this droning struck them as funny. They were having a laugh but the seed was planted. Low formed around the notion that the sound of waiting for the real music to begin might be a more interesting and authentic way forward than the conventional one.

Low never stopped provoking. In 2013 they played a 30-minute set that consisted of one song, if the droning and nearly wordless “Do You Know How to Waltz” even counts as a song. The wall of noise didn’t go over well with the festival audience, though it’s possible one or two listeners experienced rapture.

Storefront Church featuring Phoebe Bridgers–Words (Low cover)

“Words” is the first track on Low’s first album, which next year turns 30. So the original song is older than Lukas Frank, the frontman for Storefront Church. He’s also the man behind the drum-kit for Phoebe Bridgers and several other LA artists. Frank and Bridgers reunite here in a tribute to Mimi Parker.

Frank had this to say in announcing the song’s release: “Low’s music has been incredibly useful to me; it’s like an antidote to anxiety, with Mimi’s voice at the heart of it—relieving, cathartic and honest.”

On their “Words” remake, the two singers trade verses and join forces on the refrain. The monastic vibe as the opening gambit is sweet, as is the way the orchestra gradually asserts itself. Relieving, cathartic, and honest.

Low–Down By the River (Neil Young cover)

Covers of “Down By the River” usually play up its inherent drama. But this is Low (with the Dirty Three), and their version excludes peaks or valleys and other theatrics. Instead of big dynamic shifts we have a long intro with no home key or chord, just a soupy and spacious mechanized soundscape. Two chords emerge from the gloom and wash sluggishly back and forth. The fog layer burns off to reveal Parker’s shining voice. Mimi stays fairly faithful to the original, just takes a little slower, and applies some gentle flattening of melody notes.

Neil Young fans might feel that the song gets disrespected here (apart from Mimi’s vocal), but they should note that Young is the artist Low has covered the most. Sparhawk even joined a Neil Young cover band during the pandemic.

City and Color–Murderer (Low cover)

The Iraq war is the backdrop to “Murderer,” and to the album it appears on (Drums and Guns, from 2007). Or does that context matter? Could it be that Sparhawk at times harbors some dark urges himself? Is religious mania the subject of the song, or the dark energy behind it? As with Kurt Cobain in songs like “Polly” and “Rape Me,” Sparhawk is willing to explore unsettling frontiers.

Dallas Green, the artist behind City and Colour, goes all in on his 2020 rendition. In fact Green released a two-track EP of Low covers, part of a fundraiser for the NAACP. Green seems in his element with intense material, and it’s no surprise he credits Alice in Chains as his main musical inspiration.

Low–Fearless (Pink Floyd cover)

You can hear traces of Pink Floyd throughout Low’s career, but the band has recorded only one Pink Floyd song. They chose a relatively obscure one, from the overshadowed Meddle album.

The song captures Roger Waters just before he suddenly found his voice and purpose with Dark Side of the Moon. (What happened to Waters in the short months between Meddle and DSotM, anyway?) “Fearless” is in the same alternate guitar tuning that Sparhawk favors. The cover is unusual for Low in that it is a straight-ahead copy of the original.

Robert Plant–Monkey (Low cover)

In this fan-captured video from the day after Mimi’s death, Robert Plant struggles to get through his dedication to her (or so it seems to me, and btw I’m not crying, you’re crying). Low’s “Monkey” may have been on the set list that night regardless of the devastating news—the song has become a live staple for Plant since 2010. The band also performed Low’s “Everybody’s Song,” which they play even more frequently than “Monkey” (though Plant has never recorded it). Both songs appear on Low’s The Great Destroyer album.

“Silver Rider,” Plant’s other Low cover (also from The Great Destroyer), earned the singer a Grammy nomination for Best Solo Rock Vocal Performance in 2010. But he doesn’t play it any more. Go figure.

Low–Stay (Rihanna cover)

Mimi sings Rihanna, Sparhawk fills in for Mikky Ekko. No guitar, no drum, no drone, no testing of patience. Just piano and two voices. And plenty of poise and beauty.

Rihanna’s recording of this one song has a higher play than all of Low’s songs put together and then multiplied by some large number. I doubt that Parker and Sparhawk spent a second being bothered by that. Their focus was on feeling gratitude for the modest success they’ve had. In fact they recorded “Stay” to help raise funds for Rock for Kids, a Chicago-based non-profit providing music education to underserved children.

Mavis Staples–Holy Ghost (Low cover)

You don’t have to be a church-goer to feel the power of “Holy Ghost.” This is a song that fell into the hands of Mavis Staples practically at its birth in 2013. Jeff Tweedy connected the dots here. He produced Staples’s One True Vine album while also producing Low’s The Invisible Way, which includes “Holy Ghost.” Not only was Staples on board with covering a brand new song, but she made it her album’s opening track. And who could interpret “Holy Ghost” better than the righteous Mavis Staples, with her lifetime of soul and gospel singing?

The song has the aura of a traditional spiritual or hymn, but “Holy Ghost” is not all blessings and rejoicing. Consider the third verse: “I don’t know much / but I can tell when something’s wrong / and something’s wrong.” I’m guessing Sparhawk had personal struggles in mind as he wrote the lyrics, and that Staples has social justice in mind as she sings them–she marched with and sang for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, after all.

The last verse springs a surprise in refusing to complete itself: it is left open-ended, wordless, ready for you to bring your own closure if it is closure you want.

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