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Review: Low weaves majestic restraint with loud energy, and it works

Review: Low weaves majestic restraint with loud energy, and it works
The Minnesota trio Low performed the first of two nights at the Lodge Room on Thursday. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Halfway through rock trio Low’s sold-out show at the Lodge Room in Highland Park on Thursday, band co-founder Alan Sparhawk stepped up to his microphone.

He, drummer Mimi Parker and bassist Steve Garrington had already presented work, much of it from its recent album “Double Negative,” that shifted between minimal grace and maximal noise — work that conveyed the breadth of the band’s shock-of-the-new evolution from a once-patient 1990s guitar act into something messier and more raw.

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After Parker noted to her husband that he hadn’t yet said a word to the sold-out crowd, Sparhawk said hi with a laugh and looked up at the symbology decorating the former Masonic lodge’s ceiling. Noting a chandelier with a pentagram base and other gold-leafed adornments typical to the secretive Freemason fraternal organization, he quipped that their presence served as “a little reminder of when lying and cheating were formal.”

Low’s most recent album, “Double Negative,” roams this depressingly less formal contemporary political landscape. On the first of two sold-out concerts, the long-running Duluth, Minn., group offered work that moved between majestic, gilded restraint and big, loud, distorted release, all the while attempting to manifest the tumult of the times.

“My reaction to a more chaotic world is to fight back with something more chaotic,” Sparhawk told the Guardian last year while discussing “Double Negative.” The band’s 12th studio album, it was one of the most acclaimed of 2018 and attracted a new generation of listeners.

Written and recorded as the 2016 election was unfolding, the songs reflect what Sparhawk described in one interview as their take on “the general psyche” of the country, what he called “the questions on everyone’s minds: ‘How does a group of people get along and move forward? What is truth? What is confusion and the power of hope?’ ”

At the Lodge Room, those concerns manifested themselves in shards of lyrics that zipped by like bottles at a bar fight. Parker and Sparhawk harmonized and tag-teamed lines that effectively, eerily conveyed the dissonant sound of a world on edge, that raged against the politics of division.

“You grin and paw and laugh it off,” Sparhawk sang during “Tempest,” his voice delivering cleanly a song that on the studio version he fed through a Vocoder.

Behind him, rows of cane-length tubular screens projected horizontal swaths of visual information. Throughout the show trees fluttered against a gray sky, candles flickered, white-hot light strobed as Sparhawk generated guitar feedback and flashing blue and red lights dotted urban streetscapes.

“I am not above the law,” Parker and Sparhawk sang on “Quorum,” a song that touched on “selfish interest.”

On the pulsing “Disarray,” the two sang in unison, “Dissolve into a state of awful inverse — the truth is not something that you have not heard.”

With 12 albums worth of material, Low is hardly starved for songs, and across the night they wove in older work that they adapted in service of new musical textures. It was in these songs that the band expanded the scope of their thematic concerns, adding washes of color and infusing the evening with more optimistic lines.

On “Holy Ghost,” Parker sang of the titular spirit with a sense of awe and adoration, while hinting at Nashville twang. On “Nothing but Heart,” the pair teamed for a song with lyrics that suggest that “it would behoove us all / To remember that all we are is what we love / And not a fragment more.”

Across the night, the audience at the Lodge Room took that tip to heart. Wildly respectful of Low’s approach to dynamics, during one between-song break, the silence suggested we were in a library.

On the 1996 song “Do You Know How to Waltz,” the trio slowed the tempo to a crawl, as if to spite the seemingly revelatory lyrics: “One more dance / Before they take away the light / One more spin around the line.”

The two crooned in unison, distortion increasing gradually as Sparhawk worked his guitar. As was often the case on Thursday, though, such beams of optimism were short-lived.

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“One more step and then we'll turn and face the debt,” they sang, “One more reason to forget.” Above the crowd, the pentagram jittered with strobe-generated energy.

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