C’mon is the shortest title of any Low album, which seems fitting, as it also ranks among the most succinct and straightforward entries in their variegated discography. Singer-guitarist Alan Sparhawk has even perfected the “elevator pitch” for C’mon: “Recorded in an old church in Duluth, MN and mixed in an apartment in Hollywood, CA.” But that brief synopsis hides universes. To get to the heart of this album, we must delve deeper into both halves of the creative journey of C’mon.
Comprised of new material written on and off the road, the ten-song set was recorded in a former Catholic church, aka Sacred Heart Studio (where the band previously crafted 2002’s Trust). Sparhawk says Low deliberately seeks out circumstances that will generate challenges and happy accidents, breaking them out of established patterns. “We like to work in situations where there’s a character, whether that’s the time period or who we’re working with. A lot of times, the space can set that tone.”
In this case, they took advantage of the venue’s high, vaulted ceilings, natural reverb, and audible affinity for organ soundsâ€”bassist Steve Garrington is quite adept on keyboards, too—and group singing. The thunder-crack percussion that peppers the final minute of the slowly unfolding “Majesty/Magic” is just one example of this dynamic in action. Sparhawk and singer-percussionist Mimi Parker already get to enjoy playtime at home with their family, but now that childlike freedom of expression translated into work. “We had toy drums, and boxes, and big, beat-up kick drums laid out everywhere, and were just hitting them in the middle of the room and listening to how it sounded, and using that as accents here and there.” The space also responded especially well to the baritone guitar that resonates throughout the dense and dirty “Witches.” The band further expanded its sonic palette by inviting in outside players, including longtime friend Nels Cline, who contributes lap steel and guitar, and violinist Caitlin Moe (of Trans-Siberian Orchestra).
The trio was also eager to return to a sound closer to how they perform live. “I didn’t want to furrow my brow too much making something ugly, just because I’m sometimes uncomfortable with things being too pretty,” Sparhawk admits. With its jangly guitars and sweet vocal harmonies, opener “Try to Sleep” not only betrays his affinity for the Byrds and ‘80s Paisley Underground acts like Green on Red and Rain Parade, but sets the album’s tone: Warmer, fuller, and more introspective. Whereas 2007’s Drums and Guns railed against the war in Iraq, C’mon feels like a plea for humanity, decency, and common sense in a world gone mad. Sparhawk concurs with that sentiment. “With the last couple of records, we were grappling with something outside of ourselves. This one feels more like, ‘Well, forget all that. I’m looking in your eyes right now, and we need to figure out how to get through the next moment, together, as human beings.’”
Towards that end, Low have fashioned some of their finest originals yet, including the album’s snowball-down-a-mountain centerpiece, “Especially Me,” a Parker original that her husband credits with anchoring the spirit of the whole record, and an incredibly naked love song “$20.” Sparhawk rates the latter among his favorite Low compositions ever, even a suitable candidate for his epitaph. "If I could only have one song that would say everything that a person would hope to say after they’re gone, I would say that’s one of them.â€
The second phase of making C’mon involved its biggest creative risk: Engaging the services of co-producer Matt Beckley, who also contributed additional recording and mixing. Just as Beckley’s home base of Los Angeles is almost the opposite of Duluth’s icy climes, his rÃ©sumÃ© contrasts starkly with the sort of indie rock icons (i.e. Steve Albini, Steve Fisk, Dave Fridmann, Kramer) with whom Low have collaborated in the past, with credits including Katy Perry, Avril Lavigne and a long list of other pop stars.
Sparhawk knew none of that when Low first met Matt: “He’s just the son of this guy* I know.” He admired Beckley for his humor and taste, and once he learned what Matt did professionally, recognized a new opportunity to throw a curveball into Low’s creative process. “I thought it would be interesting to see what a guy like that would do with a band like us. I know how we sound. I want to hear how we sound with someone unexpected, to make something interesting.”
Though over three years have passed since the release of their last album, Low has not been idle. Parker and Sparhawk devoted a long stretch of time to writing and performing music for “Heaven,” a contemporary dance piece by choreographer Morgan Thorson; that work’s emphasis on group singing would prove especially influential on C’mon. The band’s public profile has risen, too, thanks to Robert Plant covering two songs from their 2005 full-length The Great Destroyer on his 2010 solo album Band of Joy, and garnering a Grammy nomination for Best Solo Rock Vocal Performance for his interpretation of Low’s “Silver Rider.” Plant has praised the band in periodicals from MOJO to Rolling Stone (RP in RS: “Iâ€™m not sure if the album would have worked without them”) but Sparhawk was simply flattered by their inclusion—which he didn’t learn of until after the Led Zeppelin front man’s disc was completed. “Having one of the best singers in the world sing your songs is okay by me,” he demurs.
And should having a light shone on their band by one of rock’s best-known artists direct some new listeners to Low, the attention couldn’t be timed much better. Without curtailing their artistry one iota, the trio has made one of its most accessible albums to date in C’mon. Its origins may lie in a church in Minnesota, an apartment in Hollywood, and the hearts of the modest individuals who created it, but the resulting music has the capacity to resonate deeply with audiences everywhere.
* That “guy” being Gerry Beckley of ’70s soft-rock kingpins America.