If there's one thing that has come to be generally prized in modern Western music, it's originality. Since shortly after the dawn of the singer-songwriter, few things seem to stick in the craw of listeners like the sense that an artist is on auto-pilot—that we've heard this all before, but it was better the first time around.
And if there's one thing that can forestall the need for a musical act to bust out of their comfort zone, it's having that comfort zone be a sonic trademark so immediately recognizable and inimitable that we can only really get our fix from one source: them. This pair of new releases are by two artists of the latter category, but each are at very different points in their respective careers.
For Toronto's Taylor Kirk and his Timber Timbre alias, his fourth full-length will be his second to many—and likely his debut to even more. Released at the start of 2009 (initially on the Out Of This Spark label), his previous self-titled album grew steadily in reputation over that year. It was reissued by Arts & Crafts within months, before finally being anointed as album of the year in Eye Weekly's nationwide critics' poll (as well as on the 2009 staff list for this very store). The masterful and succinct record was a perfect expression of the sound Kirk had honed over his two albums prior—that of a panhandling apocalyptic folk musician who somehow wrangled Screaming Jay Hawkins' band into backing him up (no doubt by calmly convincing them of the hell that would await them if they dared not do so). It was bewitching, haunting, and (much to the credit of this city's ever-evolving music scene) utterly unique.
What's more, as great (and as praised in these parts) as Timber Timbre was, the album still made a relatively small splash, meaning that there's little reason for Kirk to tinker with his distinct formula this time around. As such, Creep On Creepin' On arrives with a clear mission: to feed our fix.
In this respect, this record is a great success. As swampy and intoxicated(-ing) as ever, the album wanders into our ears with complete confidence in its considerable powers. The music is a little denser than before, but never is it showy—see the single-note tension of the strings that close "Black Water"; the banging and clattering that walk through "Swamp Magic"; and, especially, the truly heavy atmosphere created by the stomping, all-hands-on-the-freakiness-deck of "Woman". Whether the product of greater touring, an actual recording budget, the sense that more is at stake with this record, or all of the above, Timber Timbre is much as before, only with a little more muscle on its bones. This is uneasy listening that holds true to its original (in both senses of the word) musical intent.
Similarly to Mr. Kirk, when Low first arrived on the scene in 1993, they were like no other—even considering the presence of slowcore pioneers Codeine, Galaxie 500 (with whom they shared their first producer, Kramer—no, not the one from Seinfeld...) and Bedhead. Using only brushes on a cymbal and a snare drum, their backbeat was anything but: just a skeletal wisp of a pulse. Delicate sinews of guitar and bass were likemindedly dispensed sparingly.
But the real ace-in-the-hole was the harmonizing of Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk. The couple sang together with a frank beauty that conveyed so many things regardless of the words being sung: patience, fear, commitment, hope, apprehension, and, of course, love. It was so particular a blend that I suspect they could have continued to milk the template set out by their first three albums to this day with little harm done to their livelihood.
But it's to their credit that they did not. While the winning combo of Sparhawk and Parker have kept all their albums in the same ballpark, the band has since toyed with home recording (1997's Songs For a Dead Pilot EP), collaborations with the Dirty Three (2001's In The Fishtank EP), distortion and overdubs (2005's The Great Destroyer), and drum machines and loops (2007's Drums and Guns). All along the way, they have continually hammered and prodded at their style, daringly pushing at its form to see just how distorted its visage could become while still remaining recognizable as them.
With the brand new C'mon, Low appear ready to reap the rewards of such dedicated fiddling. For this—their ninth full-length—is the most direct, immediately appealing, and for all intents, 'pop' album the band has yet done. It is a record by a band who now appear ready to take a victory lap with the original voice they created all those years ago. It's not that the band sounds exactly as they did in '93 (they sound far more warm and lush than they did then, and their songwriting is better seasoned), but this is the first Low album in a while where the production mandate of the record doesn't outshine the songs.
From the charm of "Try To Sleep" and the gentle pressure of "Especially Me" to the all-out epic growth of "Nothing But Heart", Low have written ten tracks of a very high quality, a reminder why the mighty Robert Plant covered them not once, but twice on his last album. No matter how unique Low's style was, they wrote great songs then. And they're writing even greater ones now.
As much as Low's adjustments over the years have provided a solid counter to kneejerk criticisms that all their songs sound the same, it really is this quality that sees them enduring as a great, if cult, band. They still satisfy a fix, but they do it with songs that would also sound great if taken in another direction entirely by someone else. In other words, they've grown successfully within their confines.
It's early in Timber Timbre's case, but one senses that Taylor Kirk will experience similar growth at some point, for as excellent as they are, his records still get by a little more on the power of their personality than the strength of their songs. But Creep On Creepin' On's fuller arrangements and spooky interludes display evidence that he's thinking about such growth already, a way to expand artistically while honouring the aesthetic his band so completely inhabits. In the meantime, that eerie, addictive personality of his is more than persuasive enough to buy him the time he needs to get to the next level.