Published Sep 13, 2018Before fans even hear the first track on Double Negative — the 12th studio album by 25-year-running Minnesota indie rock band Low — many of those listeners will have concrete expectations. For one, they'll be eager to hear the long-renowned harmonies between founding members Mimi Parker (drums and vocals) and Alan Sparhawk (guitar and vocals).
However, that key Low characteristic is in relatively scant supply on these 11 tracks. There is, however, ample supply of the band's other major signifier on Double Negative — gradual tempos (though the band famously bristles at the label "slowcore") and stretches of austere instrumentation giving way to boundary pushing experimentation.
Such attempts to break new ground make the album a demanding effort that rewards patience and repeated listening. In fact, long lingering periods of gurgling feedback and static-y disruption muffle, if not all but become stand-ins for Sparhawk and Parker's voices. This may frustrate fans longing to hear the pair's harmonies.
Prime example: "Tempest," whose feedback drenched bass strums and distorted, marching percussion are played alongside equally manipulated vocals. For much of the track, any lyrics are rendered indecipherable, and all the distortion even prevents the listener from knowing which member is singing for huge swaths of it. Such elements might frustrate at first, but if you stick with it, those very same qualities build tension and anticipation that is engrossing. That's especially true when the track's abrasive aspects are sanded off for a midway stretch of melodious, serene singing and instrumentation, before the storm's eye passes and the rough hewn elements return.
And when you can clearly hear Parker and Sparhawk singing on Double Negative, it's often separately, again almost to the deliberate chagrin of some fans. On "Fly," for instance, Parker delivers a piercing high-pitched vocal that's preceded by the ever-building tension of stifled synth drones. "Always Trying to Work it Out," is comparatively straightforward, given the song's lack of feedback experimentation. It features melodious guitar work and crystal clearly delivered lyrics from Sparhawk about bumping into someone he clearly adores "at the grocery store." And when Parker begins to echo key lyrics in Sparhawk's singing of the refrain, the adrenaline rush that ensues after waiting so long to finally hear their majestic vocal interplay is all the more potent because of their spare usage.
Same goes for "Dancing And Fire," on which Sparhawk speak-sings melancholy lines while Parker backs him up with an all the more compelling harmony that gives the track a ghostly quality, until Sparhawk bellows his way to catharsis on a searing climax.
So, yes, Double Negative asks much of listeners, but what you get in return is positive to say the least. (Sub Pop)