The Genius of…Things We Lost in the Fire by Low |

For many, the idea that loudness is the ultimate mark of guitar prowess remains deeply ingrained. “It goes up to 11,” the oft-quoted Spinal Tap maxim, has long been a conscious jibe of the belief that to be the guitarist in a band, you have to be as loud as humanly possible.

It was certainly something that Alan Sparhawk, a young guitarist from Duluth, Minnesota, was acutely aware of in 1993 when he and then bandmate John Nichols created a series of paradoxically slow, barely audible songs. As the pair rehearsed for their (loud) indie rock band Zen Identity, the two friends wondered what the answer would be if these comically quiet compositions were performed in front of the grunge-hungry rock crowds on their local circuit. The more they talked, the more seditious the idea became.

Recruiting Sparhawk’s wife, Mimi Parker, on drums, the trio leaned more into a sound that went beyond a playful exercise in provoking the audience. They built songs that actively used silence and complex instrumentation to wring out the emotions in a dramatic contrast to popular powerchord-based fare of the day. Low’s seeds had been sown.

“In 1993 most of the music was pretty loud,” Sparhawk said. portable infinity. “With Low, we tried to do something really different. We were very serious at first. It was a little experiment at first. We ended up writing songs that we liked. We thought it was good We persevered.”

Reviewers, relieved to finally get rid of their earplugs, showered Low’s early work with praise. Signing to Vernon Yard from Virgin Records, the trio’s elegant debut in 1994 I could live in hope inflated their following. The band’s downcast tone would spawn its own subgenre: slowcore, a niche that would be further explored by Duster, Pedro the Lion and Codeine.

LPs and EPs followed. Over the next five years, co-founder Nichols was replaced by the nimble Zak Sally on bass, and Low moved from Vernon Yard to Chicago indie label Kranky for 1999’s fourth album, produced by Steve Albini. secret name.

Contrary to his disposition to create recordings of cavernous intensity, Albini proved a shrewd supervisor of Low’s fluffy landscapes. He would be called upon again for album five, a disc designed to be more dynamically variable than Low’s earlier work. While always using silence and few instruments, Things We Lost in the Fire was punctuated by Sparhawk’s downcast arpeggios, whispering melodies and haunting chord sequences.

little sounds

Armed with a black 1980 Les Paul Standard and his 1962 Fender Telecaster, Sparhawk carved out the chord structures and vocal melodies for the album’s 12 songs before bringing in Parker and Sally.

From the start of the band, Sparhawk aligned exclusively to the open G tuning. “I started playing with the settings when I was 19, mostly because of Sonic Youth,” he said. QRD. “I went with a guitar that I liked because I only had one guitar and I didn’t like retuning them. I found out later that it was open G. Sounded interesting, so I just did it. Now that’s all I know.

Sparhawk’s open G is characteristic of the sound on the record, heard first during the opening four-chord descending sequence Sunflower. As the guitarist’s chords are hammered out by Parker’s rhythm, two open D notes maintain a constant presence, anchoring the arrangement. The sensation engenders a sense of emotionally ravaged resolution, a theme that pervades an album partly inspired by the birth of Sparhawk and Parker’s first child.

Sparhawk’s resounding chords cast darker shadows on the throbbing white tail and the dark kiss. Scoring halfway through the album, kissThe exploration of the ephemeral nature of love and mortality hits hard. Constructed from fractured chords forged from a baritone guitar and into a more panicky mid-section, the track features Parker’s impassioned lead vocals.

In addition to chord choices, Things We Lost in the Fire demonstrates Sparhawk’s mastery of guitar as texture. From the scintillating tapestry to four notes of laser beam to metallic mini-riffs that go up and down Julyand the dazzling final triumph of Made of metalof the radiating lead line, not a note is lost.

Image: Press

Strings of a dove

Although the group designed the record to be experienced as a unique and clear journey, its latest single dinosaur law was a brief preview of what was to come. Built around a sparkling four-note riff that swings between Em and D, the track begins with rare weight before becoming more subdued in its verses and later reaching a fuzz-riddled crescendo. “I like a really big dark tone, just on the edge of distortion,” Sparhawk said. QRD. “It’s usually a tube amp that’s reached its breaking point.”

Although the album goes down some dark paths, especially on kiss and the twist Whoreits destination, via the closing track Made of metal, is that of the resolution. Driven by an acoustic G to Em chord swing, the closest is a hopeful anthem to Sparhawk and Parker’s daughter. Though tinged with regret at the inevitability of their growing first child, the song’s acoustic warmth and the ecstasy of its soaring lead line are distinctly upbeat. The album’s concluding sounds, a recording of their little girl’s laughter, crystallize the hopeful finale.

As Low would go on to make eight more LPs, this perfect alchemy of theme, mood and musical approach ensures Things We Lost in the Fire stands proudly in their canon, its consistent dynamics, a delicate application of subtle and distinctive guitar patterns, silence and touching vocals. “The guitar wants to make music,” said Sparhawk QRD. “It feels like a battle most of the time, but the guitar is a true friend, and it always gives back more than you give.”

Image: Stefan M. Prager/Redferns

info box

moo, Things We Lost in the Fire (Kranky, 2001)


  • Alan Sparhawk – Guitars, piano, vocals
  • Mimi Parker – Drums and percussion, vocals
  • Zak Sally – Bass
  • Ida Pearle – Violin
  • Daniel Huffman – Guitars, Loops, Noise
  • Steve Albini – Producer

Outstanding Guitar Moment

Made of metal

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