Low – ‘Secret Name’ – Round 12: Rob’s choice

This was one of my Christmas albums in 2000 (I assume). I certainly remember sitting down at my parents house to listen to this alongside my other choice, A Silver Mount Zion’s ‘He Has Left Us Alone but Shafts of Light Sometimes Grace the Corner of Our Rooms’ – which makes me wonder just how much more downbeat festive listening could possibly get. I listened on headphones and vividly recall waiting for something to happen. When, over the course of the album, nothing did, I remember thinking ‘well, that was a waste’. Turns out I wasn’t listening closely enough. Everything was happening.

Perhaps listening to A Silver Mount Zion next made ‘Secret Name’ sound like the Supremes, but one way or another Low felt like a band worth sticking with. I liked ‘Things We Lost in the Fire’ a deal more – although now I prefer this – and we’ve been together ever since. Only a few years later did I go back to ‘Secret Name’, now attuned, and discover the real treasure.

Low get some lazy stick for being just a slow band, but think for a moment about just how much more difficult it is to make low-tempo music hang together. Surely most idiots can paw and bang away frantically at guitars and drums and create some energy. It takes incredible craft, genius almost, to create such power from space, from restraint, from a gentle two-step.

Listen to Alan Sparhawk’s singing. Every word has to be perfectly phrased and delivered or else the entire song would be punctured. He can’t just roar his way through his performance and as a result each vocal line is a string of pearls slowly, carefully, magically being pulled from his mouth.

And then there’s the other voice. The sequencing may be accidental or very deliberate, but holding back Mimi Parker until part way through the third track ‘Two Step’ is a killer move. When she finally fills her lungs and starts to sing, not only is it a gorgeous moment, it lifts the whole record onto another level and it never looks back.

The sound of ‘Secret Name’ is not distant or removed, it’s warm, intimate, close. But beneath the surface there are strange sounds scratching, on ‘Don’t Understand’ and ‘I Remember’. This initially seems like exceptional care for a record-maker like Steve Albini to take but his stated aim is capture a band’s aesthetic, and here he does so perfectly. With hindsight this seems like their first step away from their stripped down roots towards a (marginally) more dynamic sound. I think it’s Low at their beautiful, devotional, heartbreaking best.

I talked a lot about this record whilst playing it for the Club. Too much, but talking’s pretty much what we do. Only latterly did I explain that Low are a trio from Duluth, Minnesota who play guitar, bass and drum (usually singular). Whether you know them or not, you should be spending time with them.

Tom Listened: I am really grateful to Rob for bringing this album to the record club, not just because I thought it was majestic, beautiful, delicate, quietly stunning etc,etc but also because I have since gone back to Things We Lost In The Fire, yet another great album that has wrongly been gathering dust on my shelves for quite a while.

Secret Name sounded less accessible than TWLITF and listening to it has helped me appreciate the slower, denser songs on the latter album. I find it difficult to predict the effect of listening to a new album by an already cherished band on the albums I already own by them. Sometimes the new album comes to overshadow the previous work to such an extent that I rarely go back to the older albums (for example, since getting Noble Beast by Andrew Bird, I rarely go back to The Mysterious Production of Eggs, even though it was one of my favourite albums of the last decade). Sometimes new work sits alongside the older albums to form part of an equal whole (I would count the American Music Club albums in this category, all are pretty much equally brilliant and equally flawed). And occasionally, as has been the case with Secret Name, a new album makes me appreciate what I already had more than I ever did.  To my mind, the fact that Secret Name was so slow, so measured has helped me look beyond the ‘pop classics’ of Dinosaur Act, Sunflowers, Like a Forest and In Metal (you know, the ones that actually have a beat!), to see the true beauty in all those ‘dirges’ that I had always dismissed in less enlightened times.

Nick Listened: Low are a band that, for some reason, I’ve always shied away from. It’s perhaps too easy to dismiss them as “slow and miserable” and decide not to investigate, and, frankly, sometimes one needs a reason not to investigate a band / artist because if one investigated every one you had a soupçon of interest in, you’d be skint and overloaded and bored of music in no time at all. My dismissal of Low in particular has infuriated my wife, who likes them a lot; I think in part her affection for them also fueld my dismissal, not because I don’t like my wife’s taste in music (we have huge crossovers), but because I’ve already stolen enough of her interests and tastes and feel I should leave some things alone so they can be hers. Also, I heard bad things regarding the use of dynamic range compression on Drums and Guns…

Over the last couple of years I have listened to Low’s Christmas album quite a lot (when seasonably appropriate), and I’ve grown to appreciate, and, well, really quite like it. I also really quite liked Secret Name; I’m a fan of Albini’s engineering, especially when it’s partnered with less aggressive music (Electrelane and Nina Nastasia, for example) where the juxtaposition of his stark, live-in-a-room approach (and awesome drum sound) juxtaposes intriguingly with songs, melodies, and playing that you wouldn’t expect. It suits Low’s delicate, measured, geological tempos beautifully.

I shall be getting out my wife’s Low CDs and giving them a spin. They may be slow, but they’re not miserable.

Graham Listened:

Well then, so far nothing has caught my attention at DRC in the way this album has. I had some preconceptions about what Low were all about, but one listen blew them all away. The space/drama/intensity all made a huge impact and I will be in search of more. I was surprised that Low don’t seem to have featured in any film soundtracks and can only assume they must have declined offers in the past.

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