Boy, do I hate some of the titles people come up with for music genres: from post-rock to shoegaze, there's ridiculous names for bands of all shapes and sizes. One of the chief offenders in this category is slowcore---a common term for music rooted in slower rhythms with a dark atmosphere----though I'm a big fan of Low, perhaps the genre's most relevant representative. Formed in Duluth, Minnesota in 1994, their brand of music is in a class all by itself: built around dramatic tension, it often favors quiet moments that rarely build to the volume of more traditional rock music. Two of the group's original founding members---the talented husband-and-wife team of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker---provide a terrific anchor of vocal harmony that complements their respective guitar and drum playing perfectly. The group's original bassist (John Nichols) was replaced by Zak Sally in 1995, who has rounded out the trio nicely for the last ten years.
Though Low's brand of music is still too slow for most mainstream audiences, their dedicated fanbase has grown enough to consider them a boniafide success. Their minimalist and delicate sound is perhaps best showcased on their earlier albums like 1994's I Could Live in Hope or the follow up, 1995's Long Division. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find a weak link in the chain over the past 11 years. Just for the record: my personal favorite of theirs is 2001's Things We Lost in the Fire, perhaps the group's most consistent blend of uplifting chords and brooding melodies. It's not music that's going to appeal to all tastes, but those who like their style of music will eventually grow to love it.
After over half a dozen proper albums and a handful of EPs, compilations and other releases, Low shows no signs of stopping. Their most recent album was 2004's The Great Destroyer, perhaps Low's hardest and most detailed effort yet. Produced by Dave Fridmann (famous for his work with The Flaming Lips), it's a step up in volume---but it retains the same strengths that have made Low's music work for so long. Their prior effort (2002's Trust) was a bit of a side-step by many fans' accounts, but there were some real gems to be found. Low in Europe, directed by Sebastian Schrade, is a concert film that follows the band through Germany and the UK in support of the Trust tour. Recorded in 2002 and 2003, this 49-minute film gives us a brief glimpse of Low in action; while it's a little too brief for its own good, there's some stuff here that Low fans might enjoy.
Index of Live Performances and Main Interviews:
(13 chapters, 49 minutes total)
1. (That's How You Sing) Amazing Grace*
2. John Prine*
4. Laser Beam**
5. Take the Long Way Around the Sea^
6. Last Snowstorm of the Year*
8. Interview: An Ideal Place
9. Time is the Diamond*
10. Little Argument With Myself*
11. The Lamb [listed as "I Am the Lamb"]*
12. Interview: Dreams
13. Lust [listed as "Speaking in Tongues"]^^
* - From the album Trust (2002)
** - From the album Things We Lost in the Fire (2001)
*** - From the album Secret Name (1999)
^ - From the EP Christmas (1999)
^^ - From the album The Curtain Hits the Cast (1996)
Low In Europe features a brief but solid mix of live tracks, though fans of their earliest work will be disappointed. There's a nice cross-section of songs that really exhibit the subtle shift in Low's sound over the years, and I was pleasantly surprised to see a selection from the excellent Christmas EP included. The overall mix of live footage and interviews captures a great band on tour, but music documentary fans won't find anything new here. Fisheye lenses? Check. Stark black-and-white imagery combined with color concert footage? Check. Ramblings on personal philosophies? Check.
Here's the real problem: after digging my way through A Lifetime of Temporary Relief---Low's excellent 4-disc set of demos and outtakes, including a double-sided DVD---last year, perhaps my sights were set a bit too high. In more ways than one, the DVD included with Temporary Relief is a more complete portrait of Low on disc: it's got a dozen or so music videos, an hour-long documentary on the band, and even a featurette on the making of Trust---and, at just over $30 shipped (available from the band's official website or Amazon), it's certainly a much better value. For those who don't have any Low-related DVDs, start with the 4-disc set and thank me later. If you've already got it, Low In Europe doesn't make a bad companion piece---but it's not exactly a feature-packed disc for the asking price. In any case, let's see how this disc stacks up, shall we?
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality:
"Proudly filmed on Super Video" with snippets of Super 8 footage, Low In Europe doesn't aim for a glossy appearance but still looks good. There's a generous amount of scenic footage blended in with the more typical concert atmosphere, so there's a nice balance of visuals to offset the drastic changes in image quality. Presented in its original aspect ratio, the 1.33:1 fullscreen transfer is clean and problem-free (save for a few extremely minor instances of edge enhancement and interlacing). The audio for Low In Europe is presented in a Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround mix, showcasing the band's unique sound with a subtle but enveloping atmosphere. While the film's dialogue is presented in English, optional German subtitles are provided for our friends across the pond.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging:
Seen above, the minimalist menu designs are basic and easy to navigate. The 49-minute main feature has been divided into 13 chapters---one for each of the live performances and interview clips---and no layer change was detected during playback. The packaging is also straightforward, as this single-disc release is housed in a standard clear keepcase and includes a matching insert.
Included here are a trio of brief audio-based supplements: two additional Live Performances ("Take the Long Way Around the Sea" and "Last Snowstorm of the Year") and a short Interview with the band (11 minutes total). Recorded live in Frankfurt, Germany as part of a Christmas radio broadcast for HRXXL, these audio clips have been paired visually with Deleted Super 8 footage (presumably cut from the film). It's a short and sweet mix of bonus materials, but only 60 minutes of total content is still an extremely tough sell for $25. How about more live footage, or a complete concert? Low may be a band that aims for a minimalist approach, but their fans deserve more than a few scraps.
How big a fan of Low are you? If you've never heard of the band and need a good jumping-on point, I'd suggest one of their albums first (especially Long Division, The Curtain Hits the Cast or Things We Lost in the Fire). If you're a casual fan looking for a great CD/DVD compilation of their music, I'd heartily suggest checking out A Lifetime of Temporary Relief, the 4-disc set mentioned above. If you've got all that stuff and still want more, only then should you bother seeking out Low In Europe. It's a decent fly-on-the-wall portrait of the band overseas, but it doesn't really dig much deeper than your average music documentary (and the high price tag doesn't help much, either). Don't get me wrong: I really enjoy Low's style of music and consider them one of the industry's most underrated talents, but Low In Europe is a disc that's strictly for completists only. Rent It.
Randy Miller III is an art instructor hailing from Harrisburg, PA. To fund his DVD viewing habits, he also works on freelance graphic design and illustration projects. In his free time, Randy enjoys slacking off, general debauchery, and writing things in third person.