Drums And Guns is the umpteenth studio album from Low, a Minnesota collective who make atmospheric, melancholic, understated indie-rock that is widely dubbed “slow-core.” That term suggests Low’s music must be shticky and dull—and it sometimes is—but Drums And Guns is unsettling and cool; the lyrics are dark and the instrumentation is minimal and understated. Bands that make “minimal” and “understated” music generally throw in the towel after a handful of records (Galaxie 500, Slint, Codeine, Portishead, etc.), so it’s not just impressive that Low’s still making good-to-pretty-good albums—it’s surprising that they’re still a band at all.
Though it’s unlikely that Drums And Guns will appeal to anyone who hasn’t heard a Low album before, the group deserves a little more crossover appeal. They’re a fine band that’s adventurous in the studio, can draft a haunting hook, and their output is consistent. (Maybe more soundtrack work?) If my praise seems overly modest, Low invites modesty. Other than Alan Sparhawk’s reaching, occasionally grating tenor there are few sounds on Drums And Guns that rise above a hum or whisper. Producer David Fridmann brought some of his lush multi-tracking to Low’s last record, The Great Destroyer, but he holds back here. Drums‘s instrumentation buzzes but never roars, so the songs’ melodies come entirely from the vocals, kind of like a trumpeter noodling over a simplistic jazz progression. “Hatchet” has the catchiest tune—like, Phil Spector catchy—but is broken down to just a few clicks and a languid bassline, while Sparhawk and partner Mimi Parker coo about a couple reconciling a la “the Beatles and the Stones.”
Slow, yes, but “core?” No way. Low’s songwriting approach is much more Bacharach than Black Flag. Other great moments like the doo-woppy “Your Poison,” the barely-there “Belarus,” and “Dust On The Window”—the only track with Parker’s lead vocals—feel like some of the Cowboy Junkies’ rawer material. But the song’s gritty, looped drum machine and the song’s final crescendo are intense in the way that the Junkies never quite managed. But being more intense than the Cowboy Junkies is still not really intense at all. The song titles (“Murderer,” “Violent Past,” “Breaker”) suggest an edge that’s missing from Drums even with the feedback and Sparhawk’s discordant voice. The record is gloomy but never disturbing—a bummer that doesn’t leave you bummed.