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Feature Thu Apr 12 2007

Drums and Swedes: New Records from Loney, Dear and Low

This Friday the 13th, replace your hack and slash with some drums and Swedes. At the Metro, Sub Pop labelmates Loney, Dear and Low bring their new records to the stage for all of Wrigleyville to hear. Newcomer Loney, Dear brings a jazzy, European folk ensemble to town which, no doubt, will accent the deadly serious quietness of slowcore standard-bearers Low in stimulating ways. To keep you pumped and informed, here's an in-depth look at the two most recent records from these very different artists.

Loney, Dear — Loney, Noir

Being born in the hometown of the Cardigans brings a certain level of intimidation for any aspiring Swedish rock musician. Good thing Loney, Dear mastermind Nils-Emil Svanangen rose to the challenge of his birth locale. Trained in both classical and jazz growing up, Emil kept his ear open to Kraftwerk and Brian Eno and grew into an apartment-based songwriting style that gradually incorporated a vast swath of instrumentation, pushing the bounds of soulful folk experimentation. After selling thousands of CD-Rs, including Loney, Noir, which was self-released in 2005 in Europe, Emil finally caught the attention of Sub Pop, who re-released Noir stateside in February. Combining warm tones, jazzy instrumentation, and a troubadour vocal delivery that at times recalls fellow European crooners Sondre Lerche, Travis' Francis Healey, and occasionally even Sigur Ros' Jon Thor Birgisson, Loney, Noir offers an intimate look at a songwriter caught between genres, but unafraid of his predicament.


Loney, Dear's Nils-Emil Svanangen (photo by Peter Beste).

As the album unfolds, Emil pleads his case for a "state of hope" in the solo acoustic to enveloped orchestra movement of opener "Sinister in a State of Hope." Deserving single "I Am John" lets warm tones, xylophone notes, and dueling horns and clarinets ride gritty guitar and organic percussion so Emil's soft vocals can mesh with high-end harmonizing. It's a mini-orchestrated group pick-me-up — as Emil sings it, he's "never gonna let you down." After hearing this song, you believe him. A '70s soft-rock chorus warms to squeaking low-end bass for some subdued indie pop on "Saturday Waits," and "Hard Days" strikes a note of resonance with Emil's American twin, Fifty States heartthrob Sufjan Stevens. Quiet acoustic tones are overcome sporadically by clarinets, flutes, and marching band percussion while Emil emotes about the onrush of tough times in a fast-paced world: "We used to be the fighters here." Both Radiohead's "Motion Picture Soundtrack" and "Life in a Glass House" get channeled through "I Am the Odd One," replete as it is with haunting organ, angelic harmonizing, and bouncing woodwinds. Yet Emil seems more intimate than Yorke here, as the melody is lighter and the vocal delivery is not as other-worldly. While Emil certainly has musical confidence in himself, his lyrics on Noir often betray a self-effacing tendency that reappears frequently. True to form, and despite its defeatist subject matter, "No One Can Win" benefits from a beautiful clarinet hook that interweaves with Emil's uplifting vocals until it makes the group chorus soar. You can almost see Emil's downcast eyes, though, through the soft, staccato strings which drive the waltz of "The Meter Marks OK," allowing him to harmonize the meter of loss in triplicate: "You slip away, you slip away, you slip away."

While overall the record has a very breezy, organic folk feel, some synthetic elements do appear. The Nintendo key plunks and drum fills that serve as foundation for the brief "I Will Call You Lover Again," and the driving guitar and drum current of "Carrying a Stone" both are carried by a faint electronic pulse. But the latter overcomes its programmed feel, building beautifully as vocals, percussion, and horns swell into a layered, yet restrained, finale. Direct programming returns in closer "And I Won't Cause Anything At All" which, though probably the least distinct of the record's tracks, does juxtapose synthetic beats with Emil's trademark falsetto peaks and acoustic picking.


There's a moment in "I Am the Odd One" where Emil's lyrical confession is echoed by quiet whistling that is simultaneously intimate and congenial. It's a telling slice of Emil's earnest approach to songcraft, an approach which brings together folk, classical, jazz and rock elements with an endearing quirkiness. Loney, Noir offers a perfect intro to an original voice that, heard now for the first time in the States, is full of promise for the future.

[mp3] Loney, Dear — I am John

Low — Drums & Guns

Slow and steady wins the race. Such proverbial wisdom is a mere truism for Duluth's most famous indie couple Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker. The cornerstone of Low since the band's emergence in 1993, the duo have weathered three bassists, the birth of a child, and even an opening gig for a European tour with Radiohead. Drums and Guns, their 10th full LP and second for new label Sub Pop, finds them climaxing in a musical mode that began with 2002's Trust. Where most of their records from the genre-defining I Could Live in Hope through 2001's Things We Lost in the Fire focus on subdued progressions and methodical refrains rife with beatific melodies, Trust marks the beginnings of more prominent pop structuring with occasional forays into noisier territory. Trust's nods toward greater accessibility exploded with 2005's The Great Destroyer, which was the group's first for Sub Pop. Singles like "Monkey" and "California" from that record can be seen as archetypical for this new developing sound, showcasing grating guitars in the former and radio-friendliness in the latter.

This noisy pop formula now takes on yet another iteration with Drums and Guns. Parker's latter day, straight-ahead pop drumming, featured so prominently on The Great Destroyer, finds itself overtaken by jerky loop machinations. Sparhawk's acoustic forays, found on the last two records, are replaced by bits of backwards guitar and squalling feedback. And, most importantly, the brighter chord progressions of recent memory have now been dissolved into dark, truncated creations that are clearly quelled from a place of intense political angst. But if one thing has remained constant here, and through Low's entire oeuvre for that matter, it has been the band's mixture of chillingly transcendent harmonies with challenging lyrical probity.


Drums and Guns, as its name implies, uses its beautiful vocals and percussive development to take a sobering look at violence. Opener "Pretty People" brings this dynamic immediately to the fore — woozy vocals merge with feedback, distant piano, and plodding percussion to query the current state of war in a beauty-obsessed culture: "All soldiers, they're all gonna die...All you pretty people, you're all gonna die." The backwards guitar of "Breaker," along with its Casio drumbeat and organic handclaps, guides Sparhawk as he laments the fact that "the blood just spills and spills" while society sits around "debating math." Heart-on-its-sleeve "Sandanista" finds a harmonizing Parker and Sparhawk hoping Central American rebels can agree with them that the world is in a bad place, constructing their ode over marching drums and rumbling background dissonance. "Murderer" acts as a confession of sorts, as Sparhawk offers a critique of violence while simultaneously offering his murderous services. Low have developed a knack for creating these moments of skin-crawling contradiction over the years, and this track is definitely at the pinnacle of their efforts. Closer "Violent Past" rides thick organ over a restrained loop while Parker and Sparhawk emote "God bless the darkness of the night," a line that sums the mood of the record well.


Low (from left to right) Matt Livingston, Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk (photo by Tim Soter).

In the darkness, though, there are occasional moments of light. "Belarus" uses a vocal loop reminiscent of some of Bjork's more recent endeavors to harmonize with the couple's sultry crooning and bright violin loop. The most straight-ahead guitar hook on the record emerges in the stuttering "Hatchet," where Sparhawk throws rock-star epithets at his imagined female interlocutor: "You be my Marianne and I'll be your Yoko." It's the least serious moment of the record, and you can feel Low's playful side emerging slowly from the wasteland of their current political preoccupations. That said, the building harmonies of "In Silence," while nodding towards the brighter moments of the past two records, still become too mired in the misery of thematic violence.

If loving a person, or a band for that matter, means plunging through their darkest moments right beside them, consider Drums and Guns an exercise in longsuffering. While this record should not lose true fans, it certainly is enough to confound and challenge them, this author included. Such a reaction may be exactly what Low are aiming at, though, in an attempt to challenge the uninformed and indifferent politics of the majority. So if their record makes you uncomfortable, they might reason, you just might do something about it. But the danger in this approach is that this "something" may just be pressing the stop button.

[mp3] Low — Breaker

Low and Loney, Dear along with Charlie Parr play at the Metro on Friday, April 13th at 9pm. The show is 18+ and tickets are $18.

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

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  Chicago Music Media

Alarm Magazine
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Can You See The Sunset From The Southside
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Chicago Music Guide
Chicago Singles Club
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Dark Jive
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Fake Shore Drive
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The Hood Internet
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Oh My Rockness
Pop 'stache
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Resident Advisor
Sound Opinions
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Theft Liable to Prosecution
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