"WE'RE NOT FRIGHTENING," insists Low singer/guitarist Alan Sparhawk. "But we do like making people feel uncomfortable."
Coming from a band of soft-spoken, God-fearing folks who'll be driving to town in a Dodge van with 2-year-old in tow and a portable potty tucked under the backseat, the comment may seem bizarre. Low, however, have deep roots in discomfort. Formed in 1993 by Sparhawk and his wife, singer/drummer Mimi Parker, and bassist John Nichols (replaced in 1995 by current bassist Zak Sally), the band's slow, sparse style was initially designed to agitate the "Johnny-come-lately punks" who latched on to alternative music at the time because they thought it meant that you got to be "loud and run around and go crazy."
"I'm old enough to remember when 'punk' was a very uncomfortable thing for people," admits Sparhawk. "When I first saw Beat Happening, I had that feeling of not knowing whether to run away or to go up and kiss Calvin [Johnson]. So, it seemed weird to have all these people flock to underground music who'd never experienced that sort of thing.
"When we started, it wasn't so much to have a band as it was to make a 20-minute tape that would make these people really uncomfortable."
While sticking to their minimalist tendencies, over the course of six LPs Duluth, Minn.- based Low have graduated to higher purposes—beauty chief among them. However, the less severe treatments found on 1999's Secret Name and 2001's Things We Lost in the Fire—albums that indulged the group's "pop aspirations"—have been gently, if grimly, renounced on Low's latest, Trust.
Haunting numbers like "The Lamb," with its "I am the lamb/and I am a dead man" refrain and angel of death march, set the tone for a record loaded with moments of reckoning. Not all is doom and gloom—the winsome "La La La Song" is gorgeous pop craft at its purest. Still, the most arresting songs are the ones in which beauty and bleakness are equal partners, like Trust's highlight, "Point of Disgust," which finds Parker straining over a rudimentary piano tinkling—the musical equivalent of the gruesome car wreck you can't remove your gaze from.
Uneasy stuff, for sure, yet "sometimes," Sparhawk observes, "you just have to say what needs to be said and evoke what needs to be evoked."