Welcome to part 2 of 2 of The Alcohol Seed’s ten album slowcore primer.
In case you missed it, here’s part 1.
Low – I Could Live in Hope
(Vernon Yard Recordings, 1994)
If Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker were anything but lifer musicians, Low’s stardom may not have progressed past the status of the American slowcore poster child. At this point, however, after a dozen LPs, they have earned a well deserved global following. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing the band perform three times in Vancouver over the span of a decade, and at the last show they opened with the song “Words,” a classic from I Could Live in Hope, before jumping into a set of newer material. The song brought about cheers from longtime fans who seemed in great abundance in the audience. It’s Incredible when a band can open a set with a song from twenty years ago and it not come across as outdated or disjointed from the rest of the set.
Consistency is an easy word to throw around when talking about Low. They are known for having a specific sound and only diverging from it to either slightly amp up their production (The Great Destroyer), or go a bit more experimental (Guns and Drums). The root of their sound was dug in deep on I Could Live in Hope, an album whose slow unfolding of dark imagery perfectly suited the band’s basic setup – guitar (Sparhawk), drums (Parker) and bass (John Nichols, who left the band shortly after). Many of the album’s songs seem built around a formula that allows for the guitar to cut through the mix like a knife, like on “Drag,” whose primary image sees Sparhawk at a point of giving up: “I’m sorry but I can’t hold on / It works much better if I let it drag me around.” It’s a testament to the album as a whole, a plea for the listener to not attempt to resist the gravity of this music. Hell, it’s a testament to the band as a whole, because slowcore would be nothing without Low, and I Could Live in Hope is where it all started. A quintessential release.
The American Analog Set –
The Golden Band
(Emperor Jones, 1999)
The American Analog Set (AmAnSet) might be one of the least offensive bands in history. They’re music never gets all that raw or noisy, nor does it ever get that loud or toss you much you wouldn’t expect. Andrew Kenny’s vocal delivery is so delicate it almost sounds prepubescent; meanwhile the rest of the band steadily churn out a sound somewhere between krautrock and smooth jazz. If Elliot Smith ever sang along to Kraftwerk songs it might have sounded something like AmAnSet. They were yet another band born of the vital Austin scene happening in and around the mid 90s, and though their whole catalog is worth hearing, the three or so years spanning The Golden Band to Know By Heart marked a highpoint in their history.
Ranking all six AmAnSet albums from best to worst would be very challenging. The first four are excellent and the last two are very good. The Golden Band happens to be a personal favourite, with the four part “New Drifters” that explores some of the band’s most varied and interesting instrumentals to date – the repeated guitar slide on “ii” is especially good. “The Wait” is about as nostalgic as it gets with the line: “through the nineties / we just got by,” which later became the title to a compilation of singles and unreleased material. But it’s the song “It’s All About Us” that really shines through with its brilliant mix of loud / quiet vitality. In its final minutes the piece develops a staggering post-kraut dynamism with the familiar guitar, organ, bass and percussive elements at their most interdependent.
Movietone – Day and Night
Before hearing even a second of Movietone’s music, I had read in a Dusted review that the band recorded at least part of an album on a beach. Curious, my digging led to the discovery that not only was some of the album The Sand and the Stars recorded in an ocean bay at night, but those sessions “involved the band carrying a double bass down a cliff.” None of this means their music was going to be any good, but I was nonetheless excited to check it out. Meanwhile, I had developed a level of respect for the Bristol band’s spirit for experimentation. Dating back to their second album, Day and Night, it’s apparent that that spirit was alive and well years before the release of The Sand and the Stars.
Day and Night is a peculiar album, thriving in but never exclusively tethered to a kind of drowsy psych-folk. “Night of the Acacias” could have easily worked as part of the Fear and Loathing soundtrack, which is to say it sounds more drug-induced than the rest of the album. Perhaps Rachel Coe’s stint in Flying Saucer Attack helped steer Movietone’s sound into more psychedelic realms, although any online mention of the band seems to also mention Flying Saucer Attack more as a convenient name drop than a worthwhile comparison. Sure, Movietone have taken cues from FSA, and I would say bands like Bowery Electric and Labradford as well, but they never existed in anyone’s shadow. Day and Night‘s energy and song structure does wane slightly in the second half, but the cohesion of songs like “Sun Drawing” and “Useless Landscape” solidify Movietone’s importance in the winding narrative of slow music.
Seam – Are You Driving Me Crazy?
(City Slang / Touch and Go, 1995)
Seam formed in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 1990. The band saw many line-up changes over the years, with Sooyoung Park (of Bitch Magnet fame) as its only core member. It’s evident that Park had a strong hold on the direction of Seam throughout the band’s existence, as ’95’s Are You Driving Me Crazy? was so consistent with the sound of ’93’s The Problem With Me, despite every member other than Park being replaced. Seam’s sound was unique to what was typically considered slowcore, ironically because their sound was so inextricably tied to the 90s than it was to any particular genre.
It’s easy to hear how Seam would appeal to post-hardcore fans, although a song like the moody “Rainy Season” might leave one or two scratching their heads wondering where the energy went. Seam wore a rock banner as a kind of facade, as Park seemed intent on keeping a thread of mellowness alive in his music. Are You Driving Me Crazy? is chalk full of songs that reach the brink of rocking out but retreat to quieter places instead. It’s this restraint that has often struck me as one of Seam’s best qualities, not to mention they also wrote some damn good hooks. In considering it’s place among the list, Are You Driving Me Crazy? helps to round out the pack with the necessary structure and energy to balance things out.
Tram – Heavy Black Frame
(Jetset / Piao!, 1999)
I challenge anyone to come up with a better soundtrack to the overcast skies and concrete cityscapes that are so stereotypically depicted of London, England, then Tram’s Heavy Black Frame. And remember, we’re talking about shades of grey, not immutable depths of black. Tram were never so slow, or so depressing as to ever alienate themselves from their place of origin, and their progression toward a more varied, accessible sound over three albums didn’t hurt this fact either. Heavy Black Frame, the band’s debut, was their most soporific, which is probably why it makes for such a good “make-out” album, according to one pitchfork critic – whose review of the album is a strong contender for the website’s absolute worst (that hasn’t already been deleted).
Thanks to its long list of collaborators that brought to the album an array of strings, horns, and keys, Heavy Black Frame is chalk full of lush arrangements that so effortlessly compliment Paul Anderson’s vocals. Certainly, the band didn’t fall victim to the choppy production that seemed to plague the early releases of oh so many smalltime acts trying to play slowly. The result is an album with an unbroken flow from start to finish, probably diminishing its initial appeal for listeners wanting more to immediately grasp onto, but rewarding for those seeking a lasting relationship that starts with subsequent spins.